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Shade to Shade by Slide

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 47
Word Count: 187,597
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse

Genres: Drama, Romance, Angst
Characters: OC
Pairings: OC/OC

First Published: 11/20/2008
Last Chapter: 06/18/2012
Last Updated: 06/18/2012

Summary:



Voldemort's return is now public. The wizarding world has been plunged into war, with risk of death on every corner, and many think the only safe haven is Hogwarts. But how safe is it, really? Especially in Slytherin House, where every other student has ties to Death Eaters? Follow four of those most rare of creatures, moral Slytherins, as they try to navigate their final year with the intention of graduating and staying alive. Set in the Latet Anguis in Herba universe.


Chapter 1: Prologue
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Ritter was sure he felt something break as he was slammed against a solid brick wall, and he was fairly certain it wasn’t anything as unnecessary as the hiking stick strapped to his back. The wind was knocked out of him on the impact, and as his vision exploded in front of his eyes when his head cracked painfully against stone he felt all strength leave him. He couldn’t find the energy to fight to stay upright as his legs began to crumble, leaving him to slide weakly to the floor.

“Intruders,” a voice echoed from above him, “will not be tolerated. Especially when they are those such as… you.”
 
Altair Ritter blinked hard, trying to stop the images before his eyes from swimming quite as persistently as they were. All of a sudden, breathing had begun to cause a burning in his chest, and he wondered how long he could go without having to resort to that necessary but painful process of the inhalation of air.

“Suppose… my invitation… lost in the post?” He looked up, smiling almost ridiculously at the unwelcome sight before him.

This cottage on Dartmoor was the same as any other in the middle of nowhere in Britain. Small, ramshackle, ignored by all save a few misfortunate hikers and locals who knew of its existence. The general populace probably assumed it was haunted, and the latest occurrences in the area would only encourage that little superstition.

Altair Ritter was keenly aware of who the five most dangerous individuals in the country were. Unfortunately, two of them were standing in front of him as he was slumped down the wall of the living room of that cottage.

To be fair, they were likely numbers four and five, but it still probably wasn’t the best time for wry retorts.

The man who had spoken and now had his wand pointed at him, the one who had sent him flying into that wall in the first place, seemed to agree with that likelihood, if the expression on his face was anything to go by. “Scum. You really are just too stupid to understand just what you’ve wandered into.”

“And what would that be?” Ritter forced another stupid smile as he clambered to his feet and wrapped his cloak around him a little more tightly, the chill sweeping into the cottage suggesting this would be a good idea.

The man’s face twitched a little, until the third individual in the room let out a small bark of laughter. This other man had been standing in the corner, watching the proceedings since Ritter had been pulled out of his hiding place, and it was the first noise he had made so far.

“Thanatos, Thanatos… do calm down. Why, Mister Ritter was a gnat’s wing away from having you make a villainous exposition speech. Do remember to not let the half-breeds get you talking. You love the sound of your own voice too much for that.” Unlike ‘Thanatos’, this speaker sounded warm and lyrical, and most certainly amused.

There was another mutter from Ritter. “I’m not a half-breed. I’m just as wonderfully inbred as you two bastards,” he declared quietly, but resentfully.

Thanatos Brynmor didn’t seem too impressed. “Let’s just kill him, Robb, and have done with it. Who knows what he heard?”

Idaeus Robb gave an exaggerated shrug. “I don’t know. I don’t know what he was listening for.” Robb stepped out of the shadows into the centre of the room, moving around to perch on the corner of the sturdy oak dining table. Where Brynmor was tall and broad of shoulder, bearded and dark, Robb was small, slight, and perfectly attired.

“Does it matter?” Brynmor grunted.

“I’d like to know who sent him. Who’s so interested in our goings-on here. How he knew even how to find us.” Robb folded his arms across his chest.

Ritter scowled, trying to keep his breathing light as the ache in his ribs grew with each word he spoke. “So I talk, and then you kill me? However did you become such a fantastic businessman, Robb?” he asked wryly.

“Natural talent.” Robb grinned, almost genuinely. “You might, right now, be underestimating the worth of a quick death in exchange for your co-operation. Make Thanatos here angry, and you’ll be begging for that end by the time he’s done. And he does so hate people being unresponsive.”
 
“See, I know you work for Cole,” Brynmor said, beginning to pace, twirling his wand with practiced ease. “But I also know that Daedalus Cole couldn’t be more spineless if he were a Flobberworm. For him to send you would suggest that he has an interest in events, which would suggest he’s going to get involved in events, which would suggest that he’s developed perhaps a degree of bravery to even think about siding with a camp in this war.”

Ritter managed yet another one of his broad and ridiculous smiles. “Is that a fact?”

“You’re his pet dog, Ritter.” Brynmor’s expression was cold and humourless. “And it takes someone as pathetic as Daedalus Cole to keep a toothless guard dog.”

Ritter gave an exaggerated shrug, and ignored the pain this movement caused. His eyes were flickering around the darkened room of the cottage, evaluating quickly. They were in the dining end, a window on the far side of the wall opposite him, Robb perched on the table in the way, Brynmor pacing before him. Down the left side was the other half of the house, the beaten and worn and falling-apart furniture of the lounge. If Ritter didn’t know better he’d have assumed that nobody had been inhabiting this cottage for years, maybe even decades.
 
“Then why am I here? Give me your great theory.” He pasted another grin on his face.

“I want to know who you’re working for, who sent you.” Brynmor stopped in the pacing, looking Ritter in the eye at last.

“I thought you just said that I work only for Daedalus Cole, because only he would hire someone as toothless as me? Asking questions you already know the answer for isn’t particularly…”

But Ritter didn’t manage to finish the taunt, as he hadn’t expected he would. When he’d first been dragged in through the window, his attempted eavesdropping failed, and Thanatos had hit him with the curse that had sent him flying into the wall, he’d been taken by surprise. This time, he knew exactly what was coming, and was entirely prepared to deal with it.
 
He whirled his cloak up before him, presenting a woollen barrier between himself and Brynmor as the Death Eater raised his wand, spitting out a curse Ritter didn’t even have the time to identify. He was fortunate, he knew, that Brynmor preferred far more dramatic and physical forms of torture than the plain old Cruciatus curse. It normally made him a little more unpredictable and thus more dangerous than most of his type.

Ritter had banked on that unpredictability to get through this alive.

The blue flash of the curse rocketed towards him, even though the cloak was in the way – and then it struck the wool, and the barrier was all of a sudden made of far much more than just cloth. It shimmered with a similar blue energy, crackling as the curse splashed over it harmlessly, and absorbed the magical power with little more than some interesting lighting patterns.

Thanatos Brynmor took a step back, his expression shocked. “What in the…”

Ritter didn’t waste time. Neither of the two men had thought to search him when they’d dragged him into the cottage. It would never have crossed the minds of either of them that he might have something on him which would be dangerous. After all, they could take down his kind within seconds, and all three of them were aware of it.

That was why his plans consisted of flight, not fight.

Taking the most of the element of surprise he had from the stunned nature of both men, Ritter reached down to his waist and grabbed one of the small glowing orbs dangling from the hooks on his belt. He yanked it out, his fingers wrapping around it and giving it one good, hard squeeze before he threw it down on the ground before them all.

Then, just as he had planned for, they were plunged into darkness.

That was the problem with wizards, Ritter reasoned to himself as he reached up to grab the walking stick strapped to his back, the burning of his broken ribs washed away with the adrenaline pumping through his system. Wizards always expected battles to be fought on terms they were familiar with. They expected wand-magic, duels, and other safe, habitual methods of combat.

Lumos! Lumos!”

Ritter smiled to himself as he stepped around behind where Brynmor was waving his wand ineffectively, stick upraised. Throw a wizard in a situation where he couldn’t use his wand and he was rendered useless.

The blow from the walking staff cracked down on the back of Brynmor’s head, and the sound of the Death Eater falling to the ground with a small whimper could be heard. Ritter, in direct contrast to his enemies, had spent an entire career being very good at what he did without needing to resort to a wand. Darkness was a small challenge compared to the others he’d face, and one he had learnt to combat a long time ago.

Still running off adrenaline and a dim recollection of his surroundings, though unfortunately keenly aware that he had no clue where Robb had gone, Ritter took a few quick steps forward through the impenetrable darkness, lunging towards where memory claimed the window he’d been dragged in through was.

His shoulder took a brief blow when he misjudged slightly and knocked into the window frame as he leapt, but fresh air hit his lungs and light his eyes when he landed heavily on the ground outside the cottage.

The pain in his ribs screamed in protest at the impact, and all he could do for a few long moments was lie, motionless, on the grassy but rocky and uneven ground.

Then the sudden noise from behind him prompted action, and Ritter half-heartedly tried to roll to his feet as Idaeus Robb leapt through the same window he had made his escape from, landing heavily and clumsily on the ground beside him.

Ritter didn’t waste time. Despite the pain, he knew he could only use the trick of the Shield Charm cloak once, especially on one like Robb. So he decided to go for the second method of fighting a wizard was usually unprepared for, and lunged forwards to physically tackle the Death Eater down the hill the cottage stood at the top of.

Robb, clearly taken unawares, could only grab onto his assailant as the two of them rolled down the slope heavily. His wand was in his hand, though, and even as the two of them struggled against each other, he tried to bring it to bear with Ritter.

Ritter was no fool, however, and he reached out to grab the wrist of Robb’s wand-arm, keeping it at bay for the entire tumble. The two of them rolled, each trying to get the upper hand, Ritter having the advantage of size and skill but still keeping all of his focus just on the wand, that small, seemingly harmless but fight-winning stick.

And so, when they finally reached the bottom of the hill and fell out of their tumble, Ritter found himself sprawled flat on his back in front of Robb, who was on his feet and clearly in control. They were also both holding wands pointed at each other.

Robb let out a small snort of laughter. “What are you going to do with that? Wave it at me threateningly?” he scoffed. “Nice bluff, Squib. If I were one of my mindless goons, it just might work.” He raised his wand. “But I’m not. Petrificus Totalus!”

And there was no flash of light. No swirling of magical energy. Just, finally, a small squawk…

…and Robb’s wand turned into a rubber chicken.

Ritter stood up slowly, grinning at the astounded Death Eater, and lifted his own wand – Robb’s real wand, which he had swapped in the fight – before calmly snapping it in two. “Bad luck, Robb,” he said, shrugging. Then his hand curled into a fist and, before Robb could react, he stepped forwards to punch the Death Eater soundly, sending him spinning to the ground and into unconsciousness.

He shook his hand at the faint sting of the blow, and did his best to breathe as shallowly as possible with the continued ache of his ribs. Ritter wrapped his cloak around him to chase off the chilly Dartmoor breeze, even in midsummer, then turned around to calmly stumble down the path the way he’d come, towards the nearest Portkey. Taking Robb and Brynmor with him would have been impossible, desirable as it would be – more Death Eaters would be on the scene in minutes, and he’d do well to be a long way from here.

Ritter could, he reasoned, have bought one of the false wands which was just a simple stick and nothing more. But the element of surprise from one of the transforming trick wands, the expressions on the faces of his opponents, and the sheer amusement he got from humiliating the Death Eaters certainly made it worth the extra cost and risk.

Besides, sometimes the Daily Prophet would catch wind of incidents like this… and considering how much the products of Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes had done for him, a little bit of advertising for them in return could hardly hurt.

Chapter 2: The Plan
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Chapter 1: The Plan



“Tent pegs?”

“Check…”

“Guy ropes?”

“Check…”

“What the hell are guy ropes? Ropes you tie up the local men with?”

“No. Hammer?”

“Check…”

“Why exactly is it we’re going camping like this?”

“Because we are. Sleeping bags?”

“Check.”

Sleeping bags? We’re going camping with sleeping bags? What happened to good old-fashioned beds?”

“They won’t fit in the tent. Tin opener?”

“Check.”


“Only because we’re taking stupid bloody Muggle tents. I’ve got some tents at home; just a quick apparition and I can go get them. Then we can camp in style.”

“Water flasks?”

“Check. And we’re not doing this to camp in style. We’re doing this for the full outdoor experience.”

“Why the hell did I agree to this?”

Finally, Caldwyn Brynmor tossed the water flasks onto the grass and looked up at the irritated and questioning shape of the person who was better than anyone he knew at driving him nuts. “Because, my good Tanith, it is a cheap and easy holiday with your best friends in the whole world without having to listen to death, slaughter and mayhem for a long weekend.”

Tobias Grey, lounged out on the grass in the back garden of Cal’s house, where all of their camping kit was assembled and being double-checked, raised his head and lowered the list of supplies he’d been reading out. “Listen to him. Also, listen to the word ‘cheap’.”

“We can have the tents for free. I’d just have to go home for them. They have beds. They’re small, they’re light, we won’t have to pay for them, and did I mention the beds?” Tanith Cole looked rather put out as she perched on the small wall at the edge of the patio and looked at the array of kit her two friends had been assembling.

The house of Will Rayner, foster-father to Cal Brynmor, was as typical a terraced house in as typical a village of the Peak District like Kittering as one could expect. Two floors, three bedrooms, none too generous in size, and a back garden which was bulging at the sheer notion of being filled with camping equipment.

“One of these days, Tanith, you’re going to have to try and cope without wizardly luxuries, and then you’ll be glad that I educated you in the way of Muggle survival.” Cal shifted somewhat uncomfortably as he reached for the list Tobias was holding and stood up, doing his own double-checking of their camping kit.

“I think that the day when wizardly luxuries collapse, Muggle society will be so long gone that knowing how to use a ‘guy rope’ won’t help me.” There was a pause, and Tanith glanced over at Tobias, who had by now returned to his relaxed sprawl on his back. “And I still think a guy rope sounds something you use to drag in prospective men.”

“Maybe you should get one for the next Hogsmeade festival.” Eyes closed, blond hair distinctly scruffier than usual and dangling in his eyes, Tobias’ ease was more than obvious. “Perhaps you could get a small horde following you."

“Oh, I can do that without any kind of poxy rope.” Tanith grinned slightly at Tobias’ good-natured snort, then looked up at the sound of an irritable throat-clearing from Cal. “Yes? Was there something I was supposed to be doing?”

“You were supposed to be sitting here sunning yourself and not getting in the way.” Cal sounded a small degree exasperated. “It seems you couldn’t manage that.”

“I did for a bit. Then I got bored.” She glanced back over at Tobias. “We should go to the Hogsmeade Festival again this New Year, I’m pretty sure of that.”

Cal turned away, shaking his head as he surveyed their sprawling equipment. “Yeah,” he muttered, quietly enough that they might presume he meant to be discreet, loudly enough that they would certainly catch his words. “Because that went so well last time.”

Tobias stiffened slightly. “Doubt I’ll be at Hogwarts again this Christmas. Last year was a bit of a… fluke.”

“And Will won’t be working this year. He promised he’d be around this time.” Cal shrugged. “Of course, that might change… but I’ll take the promise, for now.”

“We could, you know, do the amazingly impossible and go there from home? Hell, we’re all of age. It’s not like our parents can boss us around.” Tanith rolled her eyes.

Tobias and Cal exchanged glances. “I’m not sure my mother got the memo on that one,” Tobias said dryly. “She still wanted me to explain to her exactly what I was doing with this camping trip. You know – where am I, what am I doing, who am I doing it with, how long will it be.” He frowned. “I’ll talk to her. But I guess the over-protectiveness is normal, right?”

There was nothing but a slightly stiff silence from the other two, broken just by Cal far-too-obviously muttering the list of kit under his breath.

“So. We got everything on the list?” Tobias sat up abruptly, straightening his glasses from where they threatened to slide off his nose, and blinking slightly at the adjustment of blood flow to his head.

“Now comes the fun of packing. And… what was that?” Cal glanced up as a rather distinctive sound echoed in the sky above them. It was only mid-morning on a particularly glorious summer day, and having been left to their own devices for the better part of two days in this rather sleepy corner of England, sudden interruptions were definitely unexpected.

And usually unwelcome, with the current climate of… things.

“Relax. Owls.” Tanith gestured ahead, over Cal’s shoulder and towards the sky, where a trio of dark shapes could be seen fluttering about and heading in their direction. “Ought to be from Hogwarts.”

“Smart buggers, aren’t they, knowing that we’re here.” Tobias shook his head, clambering to his feet. “Exam results. Course books. We’ll have to go shopping… I’m sure I need a new set of Potions equipment, and the Arithmancy course book list is going to be as long as my arm…” He began to pace a little anxiously.

Cal grabbed him by the shoulder. “Camp first. Shop later.”

“Actually,” Tanith commented as the three birds – rather splendid identical tawny owls – landed in unison on the garden fence and straightening up as pompously as such an animal could, “letters first. Camping next. Shopping even later.”

“Or maybe, Toby, you should go for breathing.” Cal stepped over to the wooden fence, relieving the three birds of their burdens. Then he headed over to the back door of the house, pushing it open and nodding inside. “Water’s in the kitchen, boyos. Feel free to drink up, Scotland’s a long trip back.”

As the three owls fluttered into the house, Cal tossed the letters to the other two. Tobias had just about finished pacing, but was muttering indecipherably under his breath as fumbling fingers accepted the letter.

Cal unrolled his with little ceremony, sitting down next to Tanith on the patio. “Relax, mate,” he told Tobias. “What’s got you so worried? It’ll just be the booklist.”

Tanith was looking at their friend with a somewhat more thoughtful expression. “Don’t worry about the prefect badge,” she told him. “You know as well as I do that Miles was never going to be able to hold onto the thing. It’ll be back.”

Indeed, a shining golden badge had dropped into Tobias’ hand out of the letter as he’d taken it, but he hadn’t given it much of a reaction. “I wasn’t worried about that,” he said, shoving the prefect’s badge into his pocket and beginning to pace again. “Professor Snape told me I was pretty much guaranteed to have my badge back with Umbridge gone. It’s…” His voice trailed off into a mumbling monologue, too quiet to be overheard.

With a slight sigh, Tanith’s gaze dropped down to her own letter. Nothing in particular caught her eye – confirmation of her continued presence as a prefect of Slytherin House, confirmation of the abolition of the Inquisitorial Squad and thus her loss of status there, confirmation of her NEWT courses, a list of the books she needed for the subjects, captaincy of the Quidditch team passing on from the addled Montague to fifth-year Urquhart, and…

Shit! That Irish bastard!”

Head Boy and Girl assignments.

Tobias threw his letter down on the floor with more than mild frustration, his pacing picking up. “Of course O’Neal gets the job. He gets everything, doesn’t he? Never works, never makes an effort, just smiles his golden boy smile and everything falls into his lap!”

Cal was acting as if he couldn’t hear half of this, his head buried in his own letter as best he could. Probably, Tanith guessed, trying to plan how to manipulate Urquhart into keeping him in the Quidditch team after his last-minute appointment the previous year to the Beater spot with the appalling performances of Crabbe and Goyle.

Tanith stood up, stepping over to the blatantly irate Tobias. “Grey… just relax. It’s only the Head Boy position. It’s not like it’s…”

“You know how hard I worked for that?” Tobias turned on his heel to face her, his irritated cursing finally leading to him raising his voice at her. “You know how hard I made an effort as a prefect, as a student, pushing forwards, trying my best?”

“No, Grey, because I never paid attention to you for the last two years, especially not as I was standing by you in every single damn meeting and every time you played nice to Snape and Dumbledore.” The biting edge in Tanith’s voice was subdued, but definitely gave him the message that taking his anger out on her was not something he should consider.

He did take a step back, looking a little sheepish for a moment, but the irritation was still clearly there. “And Connor O’Neal, who never did anything but play happy little Hufflepuff, gets the job. Of course.”

“Cup of tea, anyone?” Cal stood up, looking between the two of them. No response, but he still headed for the back door. “I’ll just go put the kettle on…”

“O’Neal’s done a lot of good things for the school,” Tanith started, not entirely sure she was using the right tack to calm Tobias down, but beginning with simple facts first. “He’s a good student, and he’s a good prefect…”

“And is Hufflepuff’s latest golden boy since Diggory died.” Tobias rolled his eyes, resuming pacing. “Of course. So Hufflepuff get the sympathy vote. Because Diggory never lived to get the Head Boy spot, and so when, two years later, his successor appears, he gets the job, no question.”

“Hey, let’s be fair. O’Neal never had his prefect badge taken away from him,” Tanith stated flatly, the self-pity in Tobias’ voice irritating her after no more than a few seconds.

That’s not fair!” Tobias rounded on her, finally his anger somewhat justifiably levelled in her direction. “That was Umbridge, and you know it! You think I’d have stood a chance of Head Boy if I’d fallen in line with the Inquisitorial Squad now Dumbledore’s back?”

“So that was why you did it? I thought you were trying to stand on your high horse, play the victim, and maybe try to prove to MacKenzie that you could play fluffy Slytherin for her.” Tanith threw her hands in the air.

“This has nothing to do with that, and it certainly has nothing to do with Annie.” Tobias’ voice took on a cold, warning note, and it was Tanith’s turn to realise she’d pushed too far in the wrong direction. “I played ‘fluffy Slytherin’, like you said, I toed Dumbledore’s line, and what do I get for it? I get ignored. Like every other Slytherin.”

“You don’t hear me complaining about Jennifer Riley getting the Head Girl spot!” Tanith retorted.

“You never wanted the Head Girl spot! You hardly even wanted the prefect job! It’s just because Larkin and Drake are so inept that you got it in the first place!”

Tanith folded her arms across her chest. “It’s nice to know you have such a high opinion of me, Grey.”

Tobias rolled his eyes again. “Stop derailing the conversation. That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” he said irritably. “We haven’t had a Slytherin Head Boy in ten years. Van Roden deserved it through and through, and guess what? It went to a Gryffindor. Imagine that!”

Cal emerged from the back door at this point, holding a tray with three steaming mugs on it. There was a pause as he analysed the sight before him, then he stepped backwards, returning to the house. “I think I forgot sugar and milk!”

The other two ignored him. “Get a grip here, Tobias. Either this is about you, or it’s about everyone screwing over Slytherin House. You can’t have it both ways.”

“I can’t? I’m a Slytherin. I do a good job, and someone else gets rewarded. Used to be Gryffindors. Hufflepuffs are apparently ‘in’. Golden boy O’Neal, never had to ask for anything in his life, gets it all on a plate for him without even blinking, bam.” Tobias slapped his hand against the wooden garden fence, and it gave a quiet thunk sound in response.

Tanith paused, pinching the bridge of her nose and taking a deep breath. “Then why are you shouting at me about it?”

“Because I want to shout at someone about it, and you offered. Plus, you’re kind of used to it.” Tobias sighed, calming down significantly. “This just… it’s shit. It really is.”

“I know.” Tanith nodded slightly, moving back over to the patio to perch on the garden wall. “But… hell, Slytherin’s never going to get anything. I worked that out back in first year. I figured you’d have twigged by now.”

“What can I say? I’m a sucker for lost causes.” Tobias flopped back down onto the grass, sprawling out vaguely, giving her a brief sideways glance.

“Has the bombing stopped? Is it safe to give you tea?” Cal sounded dimly amused as he emerged from the back door, still holding the tray and moving about to distribute the mugs.

Tanith chuckled, picking up her letter again and accepting the tea mug. “Yeah. False alarm.” She took a brief sip of the tea, her eyes flickering back over the letter.

The mug paused as she lowered it when finally she read something to make her halt. “Where’s the report?”

“What?” Tobias raised his head, reaching for his own, slightly screwed letter.

“The report. It’s not here.” Tanith turned the sheet of paper over, as if double-sided parchment had become a new craze at Hogwarts. “Our class reports.”

Cal raised a sheaf. “I’ve got mine,” he said, blinking.

“Don’t have mine.” Tobias scanned his letter quickly. “Oh. It’s been sent home.” He shrugged, flopping back.

The mug and letter were set down abruptly as Tanith stood up. “Shit,” it was her turn to say.

“What?” Cal frowned, sipping his own tea.

“My parents will open that. They think privacy happens to someone else when it comes to school stuff. I didn’t think the letter was today!” It was also her turn to pace, gesturing a little frantically.

“What’s so bad about that?” Tobias blinked.

“They think I’m taking Astronomy, not Defence Against the Dark Arts, and Ancient Runes, not Transfiguration!”

Cal and Tobias exchanged glances. “So?” Cal asked at last.

“They think I’m doing these subjects because they think I’m training to become a Potions Researcher! Without Astronomy, how the hell am I meant to be any kind of Potions professional?”

“Oh.” Comprehension filled Tobias’ expression. “You think they’ll figure out that you’re…”

“Don’t say it.” Tanith winced, reaching down to whip her wand from out of her back pocket. “I’ll be back soon. Before we planned to leave, don’t worry, Brynmor. I just hope it’ll be in one piece.”

Then she raised the wand, closed her eyes, focused…

And the air of the world rushed in around her.

She’d apparated back home often enough since she’d acquired her license that it came almost as second nature to her. The sudden change in smells and sounds as she popped back into existence was normal; no longer the crisp air of the Peak District, but a muskier, more woody smell from the copse around the back of her house, the perfect location for apparition and any Portkey.

It was a walk of just a matter of minutes from the apparition site to the back door of her house, but she managed to stretch it out a quarter of an hour, pausing to enjoy the woodland shade, stopping around the lands behind her house to briefly admire the winged horses her father bred, and generally delaying the inevitable as best as she physically could.

The Cole family home stank of the old money that had built it brick by brick. Houses of its size were only occasionally found in the country, though the Cole home was not uncommon in its architecture or design. Muggles passing by would see the house, know it to be inhabited, but there was little written as to the nature and history of the place. The more suspect aspects of the estate, the winged horses and the occasional magical displays, were all hidden neatly by charms. A wizard could look upon the house and see everything as it was – a Muggle would look, see nothing important, and suddenly remember they’d left the kettle on if they bothered inspecting any further.

So the ‘back door’ was a rather wide set of glass windowed doors that meant it was effectively impossible for Tanith to sneak into the house. There was nobody in the kitchen to have seen her approach, but by no means did she suspect that this meant her arrival had been undetected.

Besides, she was technically supposed to be here to talk to her parents about the issue, not hide from them. If she wanted to hide, she could have gone on the camping trip and ignored their wrath until later.

Avoidance of issues had never held her in good stead lately.

“So,” a voice echoed from the corridor just as she emerged from the kitchen, far down to her left towards the stairs. She froze, mid-step, not daring to turn and face the speaker. “Our little Potions Researcher returns home. Only… I am all astonishment.”

Tanith stopped, closing her eyes, then turned to face her father. “So you read the report, then, dad.”

Daedalus Cole stood at the foot of the stairs, arms folded across his chest. He was a man of slim build, devotedly average height, and nothing particularly commanding about his appearance. His social position was, she recalled with some derision, that of the intellectual, never something particularly respectable when one is expected to hold dinner parties, and especially not when one has the reputation as being… eccentric.

Unfortunately, right now, there was nothing about Daedalus’ appearance which was not intimidating, least of all the deep frown on his face.

“I read it. I admit to there being some confusion on my part as to just what it is you mean to be doing, throwing away academic opportunities like this. For the most part, I am simply confused and hurt at my daughter outright lying to me for over a year.”

Tanith sighed. This wasn’t going to be easy. “Is mum in?” she asked slowly.

“She’s currently at the Drakes’. She hasn’t read the report. Yet.” Daedalus’ expression was still cold.

Well, there went any hopes Tanith could have had for using any kind of academic argument to sway over her Ravenclaw mother. That left resolution in Slytherin hands.

To be fair, she preferred it that way.

“I’m wondering how, exactly, you intend to carry on towards the career of a Potions Researcher with your NEWT choices,” Daedalus continued, though there was no doubt in Tanith’s mind that this was a lead-up to his conclusion rather than any genuine confusion. “After all, I do not see how Defence Against the Dark Arts and Transfiguration are going to help you. Herbology is a useful choice, as is, obviously Potions… but no Astronomy? How do you intend to be able to cope with ingredients and their affect upon a potion without understanding how, for example, the lunar cycle changes and influences the properties of a certain herb?” Daedalus raised an eyebrow, walking down the corridor towards her slowly.

Tanith froze, not usually finding herself in this position of being awed by her father – or, really, being awed by anyone. He had reached her by the time she found her voice. “Because… I’m not going to be a Potions Researcher,” she said slowly.

“No. You’re not. Because a Potions Researcher doesn’t take Defence and Transfiguration. In fact, you have a rather specific list of course choices here, young lady.” Daedalus lifted the report slightly, waving the piece of paper at her slowly.

“Can’t imagine what for. I just picked them at random.” Lying and continued aggravation of her father was what Tanith would usually call ‘living dangerously’, and probably not for very long. But she’d made this decision a long time ago, had weighed it up, and could smell the way this conversation was going to go, a way she objected to rather highly.

Daedalus paused, and there was a brief silence as he took a deep breath. “I also happened to have a brief conversation with Mister Van Roden a few minutes ago after reading this report. He said that he had given you as many texts as he could get his hands on to help you prepare for Auror training.”

Well… damn.

Tanith attempted an innocent smile. “Did he? I was sure there were some more books out there on investigative techniques that he hadn’t managed to send to me, and…”

“You’re not becoming an Auror.” Daedalus’ voice was still authoritative, but not quite so cold – it was definitely a more parental kind of imposing.

“I thought that was up to me?” Tanith retorted, somewhat sharply.

“I will always give you the freedom to make your own decisions, and your own mistakes. Only this is a mistake you won’t be able to pick yourself back up from, as you’ll be dead. So I’m intervening,” Daedalus said, his voice low.

“Dead? Auror’s a dangerous job, but I don’t intend to wind up dead.”

“Don’t get clever with me.” Her father fixed her with a glare. “These are dangerous times – even more so with the confirmation of… his… return. It’s not a time for you to run around to try and play hero. I thought you were smarter than that.”

“I thought you were more attentive than that?” Tanith felt the irritation churning in her stomach, natural rebelliousness combining with a sense of indignation. “You know I’m not going to be that stupid.”

“I thought I knew you. But then, I thought my daughter wouldn’t have lied to me for a year to cover up a truly ridiculous decision.” Daedalus began to pace in the corridor.

“My decision. Not yours.” Tanith glared.

“I have contributed a vast amount of financial support to your education. I have provided you with every resource you could need for your studies, I have provided you with a tutor who has educated you in ways that even the vaunted Hogwarts could not teach you. And you are my daughter. As such, I believe I have a degree of input as to the decisions of your life.” Daedalus paused briefly in his pacing to fix her with a sharp look.

“So you’ve gone and purchased a part of my life? How loving of you, father.” Tanith fell just short of rolling her eyes at him.

“Do not talk to me like that.” He drew himself up straight. “I do not need to hear any of your smart mouth. I am your father, and you will listen to me.”

“Why? You’re not going to listen to me!” She threw her hands in the air in frustration. “Yeah, I’ve made a life decision you don’t like. You’re just going to have to try and cope. Unless you want to do something ridiculously over the top, like disowning me, and I’m betting you’re not going to do that.”

She knew that there was a small chance that she had just effectively dared her father to do just that. However, she would stand by her bet; he might be tempted, but Daedalus Cole wasn’t that petty, nor did he seem to be quite that angry.

“I thought that there might be more to my disapproval than simply financial penalties,” Daedalus said, almost petulantly. “I had hoped that the disapproval of your father might help suggest just what an infinitely silly notion this is you have in your head. You have no concept of what you are signing yourself up for – a life of danger and death…”

“I have every concept. I haven’t made the choice lightly. And why the hell should your disapproval about something like this bug me?” She saw her father take a step back, as if slapped, and took this as a small victory. “It’s not as if you’ve ever made a decision that showed any kind of guts. Last war, you sat around and held dinner parties for Death Eaters and Muggle sympathisers both and played it safe!” Another flinch from Daedalus. “So if this is a decision you disapprove of, I should think that it’s the right one!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” her father responded sharply. “Tanith, you’re making judgements about something you don’t understand…”

“Are you saying you didn’t just sit on the fence? Your friends were all Death Eaters…”

“And so will yours be! That is what happens in Slytherin house!” Daedalus snapped, and she was cowed into silence at last as her calm, reserved father finally shouted at her, something she had never witnessed. “Ariane Drake! Who do you think her father works for? Adrian Pucey! His mother barely wriggled out of being arrested sixteen years ago! Caldwyn Brynmor! His mother killed by an Unspeakable and his father escaping from Azkaban six months ago!”

“Now you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tanith said, her voice shaky. “Brynmor…”

“These are your classmates, your housemates, your dorm-mates!” Daedalus continued sharply. “Slytherin House might try to defend its honour when accused of breeding Dark Wizards, but the statistics speak differently. You aren’t hiding your plan to become an Auror, and you’re living with the next generation of the servants of He Who Must Not Be Named. Do you honestly believe that you have not just painted a target on yourself?”

She rolled her eyes, jaw set with anger at his accusations and a hefty degree of irritation at his warnings. “Seriously? Everyone in the House who has half a brain isn’t going to care, or certainly not object. Those who’re going to side with You-Know-Who? They’re the idiots! The Malfoys, the Montagues…”

“The Brynmors, the Doyles, the Harts, even the Buskirks.” Daedalus folded his arms across his chest. “Is there anyone in there you can honestly trust with your life?”

Tanith’s lip curled. “I have friends, Dad. I know you were willing to sell out either side to protect your hide…”

“You have absolutely no idea what you’re getting yourself into, do you?” His voice had lost a great deal of anger, and become one more of drained weariness. “Severus Snape! The accusations against him were never cleared up!”

She gaped at her father in astonishment. “Your paranoia really has reached crazy heights. Jacob was never stabbed in his sleep by his classmates or the head of our house! If there were problems with signing up to be a Slytherin Auror, you can bet he’d have told me what they were. He told me to sleep on it for a month and then come back to him when I first told him I wanted to be one!”

“Jacob Van Roden did not join the ranks of the Aurors just as war was breaking out. It’s been a halfway-respectable job for certain Slytherins of certain families.” Daedalus had resumed pacing, hands clasped behind his back, voice in more of a low, thoughtful growl. “His mother might have a dubious past, but nothing was proven against the Buskirks, so I imagine she’ll be…”

“You’re crazy. You’ve gone absolutely crazy,” Tanith told him flatly. “This is my life. And my risks. And you might be my father, and I respect your opinion if it comes to academia, or finances, or sometimes even people. But you are, and I mean this utterly, the last person I would ever turn to if I wanted advice on a decision it would take guts to make.”

His gaze met her just out of the corner of his eye with a small flash of anger. He didn’t turn to face her, but he seemed to have been deflated somewhat, from fury to an agonising resignation. “You have no concept of the decisions I have made for you, your sister, or your mother, do you?”

“You have no conception of me as your daughter. This is a shot out of the dark for you? That just goes to show how little you know me; how little you’ve bothered speaking for me since I started my NEWTs. If you’d even been around at Christmas, had even spoken to me about my courses, you’d have realised I was lying through my teeth about Astronomy.” She held her head high, her jaw set, meeting his gaze and trying to hide the shaking in her knees.

Further deflation. “I had a very important show in the Dordogne last winter…”

“It was in January. You didn’t need to be in France for all of the setup.” Tanith folded her arms across her chest. “Face it, Dad. If you even knew me halfway at all, you’d have known I’d been planning this for the last eighteen months."

“I suppose the fact that you wish to make this kind of foolish decision and that this surprises me is testament to how little I know.” But there was more bitterness than resignation in Daedalus’ voice. “That you think so little of me and the decisions I have made in the past shows that this unknowing goes both ways.”

Tanith, at last, hesitated. “What do you mean?”

Daedalus turned to face the window, the sunlight streaming in through the giant panes of glass, the winged horses in the paddock beyond silhouetted in the bright summer light. “I know a man, Cassius Vaughn. I worked with him briefly after the war. He’s now one of the Auror instructors. I’ll see if I can get him in contact with you about your application.”

Silence filled the room, broken only by the ticking of the massive grandfather clock, the long hand less than fifteen minutes away from ‘Feeding Time’, and Tanith took a few steps back towards the door. “Dad?”

“You can go,” Daedalus said, not turning around. “Enjoy your hike. Be careful in the Pennines; Altair mentioned there were reports of some activity, but there are such reports everywhere.” He let out a small sigh. “And ask your friend Tobias Grey to ask his father what happens to a man who jumps up and down in front of the darkness declares too loudly that he is its enemy.”

Another frown from Tanith Cole. “Robert Grey’s dead…” she said slowly.

Daedalus did glance around now, the sunlight accentuating every wrinkle and crevice in his cragged face and making him look much older than his forty or so years. “I know. And I’m not.”

Chapter 3: The Journey
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Chapter 2: The Journey



I’ve been a wild rover for many a year…

“So, how’d they take it?”

And I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer…

“Just my Dad. Mum’s elsewhere, as per. Probably organising the latest fundraiser.”

But now I’m returning with gold in great store…

“Oh, fun. Well, you’re still alive… Mister Ritter help you out?”

And I never will play the wild rover no more…”

“Nope. Just me, versus the world. Dad backed down. But it… wasn’t pretty.”

“It never is with… Cal, will you stop that warbling? That’s a double negative and it doesn’t even make sense.”

Cal glanced back over his shoulder with a mixture of irritation and jubilation, already further ahead of them up the climb of this latest peak, practically dancing on the spot with a vigour and amusement neither of his travelling companions felt.

“Oh, come on, Toby!” he declared, turning around and throwing his arms out wide. “Enough of this moody bitching about parents or Irishmen. Holiday, you two!”

Tobias raised an eyebrow at his friend. “Some of these things are important. We can’t drop it all just because we happen to be in the middle of nowhere halfway up a mountain."

“Actually…” Tanith hefted her bag, looking at Cal and his clearly buoyant mood, “I think we can drop it all. Where else better to do that than the middle of nowhere? My Dad’s shut up about it. I doubt we’ll argue more than once on the matter until Christmas. As for the rest? Nothing we can change.”

She jogged up past Tobias, hopping up a small ledge of rock jutting from out of the side of the slope, and moved to draw level with Cal. “But with better singing, Brynmor.”

And it’s no, nay, never…

Tobias looked more than a little put out, though mostly hid his slight embarrassment by fiddling with a strap on his backpack. “Hey, I find it fun to plan the unsightly death of annoying Hufflepuffs… this is a holiday for me…”

Cal extended a hand towards his friend to help him clamber up the next sharp incline. “Then let’s do better holidays… No, nay, never, no more… Will I play the wild rover… No never, no more…

Despite complaints, the song didn’t stop for another two verses, Cal’s not insignificant singing voice booming merrily through the echoing depths of the Peak District. Six miles only out of Kittering, and they already appeared to be far away from the clutches of civilisation. Peak after peak revealed nothing but more wilderness, and though Cal paid cursory attention to the map, he was clearly navigating more off the memory of years spent growing up in the area.

The sun was high in the sky, suggesting as much as their stomachs did that lunchtime was approaching, and though their packs were just as heavy as those of any Muggles looking to hike for two nights, their progress was good. Optimism and freedom were greater motivators than could have been planned, and they reached the top of this latest peak, the tallest they’d climbed over the last couple of hours, within a few minutes.

Tobias and Tanith hadn’t experienced much of the Peak District beyond that which they could see from the village of Kittering itself. As such, what they were now faced with was more than enough to shock and awe; that of the Scottish Highlands Hogwarts had introduced them to was more of sheer cliffs and sudden plunges, rather than the rolling peaks of Derbyshire.

“This? Every summer?” Tobias raised an eyebrow at Cal curiously, though his words were uttered in between slight pants for breath, where both of his friends seemed far less perturbed by the physical effort. “And you never mentioned it?”

“You’re both Southerners, and English to boot. I thought the wilderness scared you?” The Welshman wore an amused, challenging look on his face, before glancing at Tobias’ evident fatigue. “Want to take a break, boyo?”

A slightly defiant glance at the evidently more physically fit Tanith, who also looked faintly entertained by his state, had Tobias straighten up. “Nope. I’m fine. Just because I don’t tromp around hills every holiday and don’t have the crazy fitness regime from hell doesn’t mean I can’t cope.”

“I never thought Sussex was that challenging,” Tanith commented, hefting her pack and setting off cheerfully down the road.

“Grandparents in Yorkshire. Merry old house on the cliffs. Had a good few Christmases up there. I’m not outright soft, you know.” Tobias shuffled after his two friends, hopping over a few rocks to avoid tumbling down the hill.

“All that bookishness, never playing Quidditch, or even any sport?” Cal waved his hands dramatically. “How can we expect you to survive in the wilderness?”

“To be fair, I don’t play Quidditch,” Tanith pointed out.

“Yes, but what Cal means is that you have a semi-psychotic jogging regime, because the Aurors want more than just brainpower and spells. It’s what’s had Ariane and Melanie complaining about you waking them up in the mornings to do exercise. And something about you standing on your head…” Tobias stumbled a little on the undergrowth, but a quick, defiant glance to Cal stopped his friend from offering a helping arm.

“Van Roden made it pretty clear that they expect a certain physical fitness. You never saw a fat Auror, right? At least, not until they ended up behind a desk.” Tanith shrugged, eyes turning skywards, soaking in the beams of the afternoon sun. “I look good on paper. I know my record reads well. I just now have to make sure I can hack it in person. Entry interviews are at Christmas. If I don’t get an offer then, it doesn’t matter how good my NEWTs results are.”

“Mm. Job applications. The big wide future. We have to think about that crap?” Cal looked dimly dubious and distinctly unhappy.

“I thought you were going to hit Muggle Relations?” Tobias asked, one eyebrow raised.

“Well… yeah. But I didn’t do so well on Muggle Studies last exams. Fact that I know all of this shit means bugger all. They want a good Muggle Studies NEWT, is the thing.” Cal rubbed wearily at his brow. “Of course, I know what’s on TV these days, who’s top of the charts, and how to buy a tin of baked beans down the supermarket. Muggle Studies will teach me the finer points of Wordsworth and Shakespeare. What use is that in Muggle Relations?”

“Use enough to get you the necessary NEWT?” Tanith asked, not entirely provocatively.

No, go not to the Lethe; Neither twist wolf’s bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine…” Tobias mumbled under his breath.

“No Shakespeare. No bloody Shakespeare!” Cal raised his hands defensively.

“That was Keats, actually…”

“I don’t care. There’s a reason I got bugger all for the literary studies. I don’t care.” Another shrug from Cal. “So, even though I could do the job, no Muggle Relations for me. I don’t have a clue what I’m going to do.”

“See if you can get another Careers Consultancy session. Maybe there’s something with the Ministry?” Tobias raised his eyebrows helpfully. “Your dream job will be out there.”

“When the Caerphilly Catapults come calling for me to sign up, then I’ll be happy. In the meantime, I’m expecting drudgery and a nine-to-five office work. And preferably not with the Ministry.” Cal’s brow furrowed. “Why’s it always about the Ministry? Quite frankly, I’d rather work in a pub.”

“Ministry can… send me where I want to go. International Relations is going to send me to far more interesting corners of the world than anywhere else until the Clarion’s hiring for an international correspondent.” Tobias shrugged, though it was a slightly weary shrug.

“Ah, it all comes out. We settle for the jobs we can get, instead of chasing dreams.” Cal’s smile turned wry and lopsided.

“I’m chasing my dream job,” Tanith protested. “Besides, Grey, you join the Office of International Relations, it’s going to take years before you get out of dealing with ambassadors in London. Globe trotting comes later.”

Another shrug from Tobias. “I can wait. It’s going to take you three years out of Hogwarts before you’re out on the beat.”

“Point.” Tanith cocked her head slightly at Cal. “And why don’t you?”

Cal faltered. “Why don’t I what?”

“Go for the professional Quidditch thing.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “They headhunt. You know that. And if I’m not on the Quidditch team, then there’s no way they’re going to see me to want to recruit me.”

“You might stay on,” Tobias pointed out. “Urquhart’s not Montague. He’s got more brain cells.”

“Compared to before or after Eddie was addled?” Tanith wondered out loud.

Tobias had the good grace to look embarrassed. “I meant… before. Since he got out of that carnivorous toilet he can’t even fly in a straight line. But Urquhart’s smarter than him anyway. He knows you’re good.”

“And Montague did bring you on board the team for the last match when he kicked out Goyle and Crabbe,” Tanith said.

“Right, after Tweedledum and Tweedledee screwed up.” Tobias nodded with agreement, then raised a hand to deflect the glare of sunlight falling down on his eyes as the afternoon stretched on and the sun began to hang lower in the sky.

“Urquhart will have to keep you on. He’s got no reason not to.” Tanith gave Cal a slightly smug, but encouraging smile. Then she paused, and blinked at Tobias. “Tweedle-what?”

“Um, Muggle literary reference.”

“Urquhart does have a reason: Malfoy,” Cal muttered bitterly, interrupting the otherwise inevitable bicker regarding the pros and cons of Muggle literature. His pace had picked up, moving into an automatic march where his feet took over and his brain detached itself from his body, prompting him to be walking considerably faster than his two friends, both of whom were forced to scurry somewhat to keep up, Tobias straggling distinctively more than Tanith.

“Malfoy’s not that…”

“He’s still reliant on bribery to keep him where he is,” Cal reminded a protesting Tobias. “Urquhart does indeed like having his shiny toys, courtesy of the Malfoy family.”

“It’s not so safe to cosy up to the Malfoy family these days,” Tanith murmured. “Lucius has wound up in the bad place, you don’t want to get tarred with the same brush.”

Cal finally came to a halt, so suddenly that even further behind him as the other two were, they almost walked into his back. Tobias, instead, stumbled on some uneven ground and would have fallen if he hadn’t been embarrassingly kept upright by a far more sure-footed Tanith.

“Urquhart’s got a chance to do something different. Sure. But who was the last person to do anything different in Slytherin House?” Cal turned around, smiling humourlessly. “Oh, wait. I remember. His name was Tobias Grey, and he got shafted horribly for it when it cost him his Prefect badge, his girlfriend, and the Head Boy spot.” Cal gave an exaggerated shrug. “So forgive me if I figure that other people are going to be a lot more careful before they act out of type in this House. After all, the rest of the school still aint interested in what a ‘bunch of snakes’ do. Leopards changing stripes.”

Tanith winced. “Cynicism doesn’t suit you, Brynmor. Leave it to the pros.”

“It’s not cynicism when you do it, Tan, since you, like the others, took that snakeskin and made it your own.” Cal’s expression was dark as he turned to carry on walking.

Tanith paused, glancing at Tobias. “I thought you were meant to be the one who gets pissy about Slytherin’s image?”

“I am. But I get pissed on principle. Cal’s recognising what will hit all of us at some point – it’s not just about what the rest of the school thinks. Everyone calls it a bastard, it looks like a bastard, it sounds like a bastard – eventually, that snake’s going to be a bastard. And we’re at the receiving end of that bastardry. It’s not that much fun.” Tobias rubbed his shin a little ruefully, trying to regain the dignity lost from his lack of grace in this wilderness environment.

“The stereotypical Slytherin is the product of the masses holding those preconceptions of what a Slytherin is,” he continued. “The individuals might be wankers in the first place, which is what annoys us – blame the rest of the school for the fact that these wankers end up revelling in their faults, and make the image of being a bastard part of what defines them.”

“So you’re blaming Dumbledore?” Cal asked from ahead, sounding finally amused.

“I always blame Dumbledore. Second year, remember? You know how many points I scraped together on those Herbology essays?” Tobias sounded indignant.

“You know how much I got from actually behaving myself in front of McGonagall?” Tanith’s voice was rueful.

“Then the decrepit old fool took it all away and gave it to his Gryffindor favourites. We won that House Cup fair and square. And it went downhill from there.” Tobias pinched the bridge of his nose. “Bloody Potter.”

“Don’t blame Potter. It’s been like this way before him,” Tanith pointed out.

“Bloody rest of the entire bloody school?” Tobias raised an eyebrow.

Brief consideration from Tanith. “Yeah. That’ll do.”

Talk was limited after that as they carried on with the hike, spending another few hours mostly focusing on their progress and the sights and sounds of Derbyshire Peak District. Despite Tobias’s relatively poor progress compared to his more physically fit companions, they still covered a good distance, and there wasn’t much light left in the sky when they came to a patch of low ground near a small copse which Cal declared to be perfect as a camp site.

Setting up tents was where Tanith’s previous ability to take the trip in stride faltered and Tobias’s lesser hardiness was counterbalanced as the two far more Muggle-familiar boys set about erecting the pair of small canvas constructions as Tanith goggled with bewilderment at instructions and offered unhelpful suggestions.

“Guy ropes,” Cal finally declared at her with exasperation as he began to hammer one of them into the ground, “tether down the top of the tent, instead of the pegs which just keep the bottom down. So it won’t blow around as much in the wind. They are not devices to be used when you’re out on the pull.”

Tanith just shrugged at this. “I’m sure I could learn to lasso,” was all she said.

She was much less difficult when it came for hunting for firewood, and by the time darkness fell utterly, they had a sufficient pile of wood that could keep a campfire going for hours on end through the cooking of dinner and later into the evening. Cal spent a good five minutes trying to use a cigarette lighter to make the kindling light before Tanith finally extracted her wand and pointed it at the campfire with a bored utterance of “Ignito”, causing the flames to magically catch erupt.

She glanced across at the sausages Cal was grumpily impaling on a kebab stick. “I could cook those too, you know.”

“Fire’s bad enough. You know magically cooked food tastes awful. Any idea what magical fire’s going to do to these sausages?” Cal muttered a little resentfully.

Tanith smiled impishly. “More than your non-existent ‘real’ fire was going to do. Christ, Brynmor, you were half a step away from rubbing two sticks together back there.”

Cal had the good grace to look a little sheepish. “I considered doing that, but figured it would be taking…”

“Guys!”

Tobias’s voice was low and urgent, and they glanced around to realise he wasn’t sitting with them around the now merrily-crackling fire, but was standing a little way off, in between the tents and staring in the direction of the peak they had descended to reach this little secluded campsite.

“Did you hear that?” he hissed, not turning around.

“Hear what?” Tanith didn’t bother lowering her voice, irritation clear. “Don’t tell me you’re getting the wilderness heebie jeebies now, Grey, because…”

Then she heard it too, echoing across the Derbyshire peaks. A low, mournful, long howl, enough to send a shiver up her spine and bring panic bubbling in her stomach.

“Is that…?”

“That was a reply to the first one.” Tobias’ face was stony as he finally turned, striding towards them, still keeping his voice low. “And the first one was closer than that.”

“Wild dogs?” Tanith’s voice was impossibly hopeful.

“Not around here. Not like that.” Cal’s expression, too, was coldly deadpan. “Only one thing makes a noise quite like that.”

“And look.” Tobias turned again to point, not at the hill this time but the sky, where a bright full moon lay amongst the glittering stars of a bright, clear summer night. “It’s open season.”

“What the hell are werewolves doing all active out here?” Tanith stood, wand in hand, eyes scanning the darkness. “Reports were coming out of Death Eaters rounding up the Dartmoor packs, but that was weeks ago…”

“They usually stay quiet in Derby.” Cal was standing, putting away the food, shoving belongings back into bags. “I guess the Death Eaters might have moved on from Dartmoor to here. Or they’re just feeling pissy today. I don’t want to hang around and find out.”

“No.” Tobias’s voice was a little empty, a little absent-minded. “That would be bad, wouldn’t it.” He turned around. “Let’s just apparate out. Grab what we really need, and go. We can come back for the rest when it’s, you know, day time.”

“Right.” Cal grabbed his bag and hefted it. “Wallets? Keys? Watches? Important things?” The list was rattled off at a slightly panicked rate.

“Wands?” Tobias raised his, jaw set in a way which made it clear that he was just as terrified as Cal felt, but not showing it half as much. “Back to Kittering, out of the way. We can all find Cal’s back garden?”

“Piece of piss.” Cal raised his wand and closed his eyes, brow furrowed with concentration. “Away from here it is…”

Tanith, who had been staring at her wand with a focused air since before Cal had been gathering belongings, suddenly started out of her concentration and raised her head, eyes meeting Cal’s. “Wait! Don’t! There’s a Displacement…”

Then Cal winked out of sight, disappearing promptly with the standard lack of pomp or circumstance of a disapparation.

“…Aura…” Tanith’s eyes were wide as her voice trailed off, and she turned to Tobias. “Oh, fuckity fuck fuck.”

Tobias took a few moments, swallowing hard. “There’s a what up?” His eyes were fixed on the spot where Cal had been.

“You never read up for the extended apparition course, did you.” Tanith’s voice was empty, and with a small hint of panic creeping in there.

“I got my license and was happy for it. You know it makes me nauseous in the first place. Extended would have been stupid.” Tobias’s voice was level – aggressively level, emphatically level.

“A Displacement Aura’s a dampening effect on apparating. Works like the anti-apparition charms used at Hogwarts and such. But it’s a temporary thing, usually an emergency thing pulled out by the Department of Magical Transport at our request – I mean, Aurors’ request.” Tanith shook her head at how easily that presumptuous comment had been made, but didn’t linger on the thought before she continued.

“Blocking out apparition… that’s a big thing. Major thing to make it impossible. Can’t be brought up quickly. So if they want to stop someone apparating in or out of an area, to capture criminals on the scene and the like, it’s a Displacement Aura they put on the entire area,” she finished.

Tobias closed his eyes. “Tanith, you’re beginning a ramble worthy of me. The legal implications and usages are fascinating, but what does a Displacement Aura do?”

Tanith’s eyes dropped. “It raises the chance of being spliced… and makes sure you’ll almost certainly not end up where you want to be. You certainly won’t make it out of the area of the Aura, but will probably appear somewhere randomly inside it. It’s just a… stop-gap method to prevent escapes. It’s not infallible.”

“So Cal is…?” Tobias raised an eyebrow, his previously level voice quavering just slightly in a way which made the panic in her stomach bubble up afresh.

“Not here? He could be on the other side of the Peak District, or he could be over that hill. I could do a Locator Spell…” Tanith looked down at her wand, raising it and frowning as her brain ran through the incantations.

Tobias’s eyes widened as a fresh howl echoed through the hills, coming from the northwards direction they had headed from on their journey earlier. “Later?”

Tanith scowled. “But what about Brynmor?”

Tobias grabbed her by the upper arm. “That’s closer. That’s definitely closer. Those things are coming this way, and it’ll take even both of us working together at least a minute to draw up the Locator Spell. So bugger our dinner and our tents, and let’s get ourselves somewhere hidden. We won’t be any use to Cal if we’re eaten by werewolves. Especially as it sounds like a Displacement Aura pretty much confirms that this is Death Eater activity, not just a random pack.”

Tanith tugged at his grip faintly, eyes fixed on the hill and direction they and the howling had come from. “But Cal will…”

“Cal will take care of himself.” Tobias’s grip became firm, and he dragged her around to meet his gaze with a strength and determination she hadn’t quite realised he had. “Tanith, we have to get out of here.”

“I’m not…” Her voice trailed off as yet another canine noise sounded, this one less of a howl and more of a growl, near enough for them to hear it and less of a loud call across the moors than a brief communication – or a threat.

Tanith froze, glancing in its direction, though she could still see nothing in the gloom. “Huh. Cal will be fine. Don’t you think?”

“I do, indeed, think.” Then, with a speed and resilience he hadn’t displayed in the earlier exertions of the day, Tobias tightened his grip on her arm and set off in the direction of the outskirts of the copse at a dead run, dragging her along in his wake.

“Werewolves… what do they hunt off? Scent? Sight? Sound?” Tanith panted slightly, scurrying, and this time needing to struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of Tobias’s long legs, even though his firm grip on her arm meant that he wasn’t going to let her fall behind.

“Anything and everything. They might be creatures of almost pure instinct when it’s a full moon, but there’s still a brain in there more intelligent than most animals out there. They still have deductive reasoning and an intellect to fuel that instinct, and that power,” Tobias said, his voice haggard from running, concentration, and sheer fear.

“So are you sure woodlands are a better idea than a wide open area?” Tanith asked, ducking under a branch as they erupted into the small copse, thick undergrowth around their feet, tugging at her ankles, twigs in her hair, brambles in her face.

“Wide open, we’re easily noticed and it’s a game of pure speed. I don’t want to try to out-run a werewolf. Here… well... it’s not much better, but it’s something.” Tobias’s free hand came up to push back a branch in her way, going headfirst through a bush himself as he cleared her path.

“Toby, I’m not an invalid, I can fend for myself – don’t slow yourself down,” Tanith spat, yanking her arm out of his grip and leaping deftly over a fallen log that he had to take a split-second longer to clamber over, even without dragging her in his wake.

“Making sure we don’t get split up. That’s the worst thing that could happen right now,” Tobias said, not pausing in the mad dash, side-stepping a stump neatly.

“No, the worst thing that could happen is that we could get mauled to death – is that a light?” Tanith skidded to a stop, Tobias almost crashing into the back of her and staggering to keep his footing at the sudden deceleration before he glanced over at the gloomy patch she was peering at.

“That’s a Lumos, or a torch,” Tobias hissed, brow furrowed. “Thank God.” He stepped over in that direction, stopped only when Tanith grabbed his elbow.

“Are you crazy? You were right when you said a Displacement Aura means that we almost certainly have Death Eaters on the loose. What, you think it’s a wizard on a midnight stroll?”

“It might just be a Muggle. At the very least, strength in numbers. And if it’s a Death Eater, we’re probably screwed anyway.” Tobias pulled away, nodding in the direction of the light, and with fearful reluctance, she followed as he jogged towards it.

There was a small clearing in the copse, just of a few trees and some turf free of brambly undergrowth or deceptive roots, and indeed a figure standing there holding an illuminated wand. But as they emerged from the trees to face them, the light revealed more of the scene to them, and it certainly wasn’t optimistic.

It was a man, one of the tallest and broadest they’d ever seen, his long wand upraised and emitting a faint red light which certainly wasn’t a Lumos spell. The ground around him had symbols burnt into it which were glowing that same red. He had a large wolf pelt across his back, the front paws tied around his neck and the animal’s head resting above his own skull; beneath it was a set of ordinary wizarding robes. But most peculiar of all were the gloves he wore – novelty Muggle oven mitts, by Tobias’s guess, brown and fuzzy and with stylised dog-like claws at the end, giving the man no small difficulty in holding the wand.

His expression was one of utter confusion as the two youths burst out of the undergrowth in front of him, and the entire scene would have been enough to stun them into silence or amuse them into laughter had, when he lifted his head, they not been able to recognise him.

Not that they’d ever met him before – not in the flesh, anyway. But they’d seen his face plastered across newspapers over six months ago, at the mass Death Eater outbreak from Azkaban, with some of the most notorious figures in wizarding history pictured for all the world to identify. His face had been one of the ones they’d studied the most intently, one of those which had stood out for them, and it had been nothing to do with his actions or his history, but instead, who he was.

Yes, they knew the man standing in front of him. And his name was Thanatos Brynmor, father of Caldwyn Brynmor.

“What the bloody hell…” Brynmor stared at them with utter confusion, wand drooping a very little in the weak, mitten-y grip. Then he grasped it more firmly, raising it and pointing it at them. “Don’t move, squirts.”

Tanith stared for a moment, the recognition just sinking in. Beside her, Tobias had frozen oddly – not with fear, for she could recognise that in him. This was something else entirely, something she couldn’t quite identify. But there wasn’t really time to consider that with the third or fourth most dangerous man in the country pointing a wand at her.

“I told you so,” she said to Tobias, not averting her eyes from Brynmor, and forcing levity into her voice. It was that or throw up. “Boy, did our day just get worse.”

“Yes, yes it did.” Brynmor scowled, looking more irritated than threatening – though the wand held by a Death Eater compensated for any loss there. “Sit down. Both of you. I’m not done here. Any movement, and it’s all over.” He jerked the wand downwards, and they complied, stiffly.

There was a moment of silence as Brynmor stepped back, pulling the pelt further around his shoulders and over his head, and began rapid, deep incantations that Tanith didn’t recognise. His wand came down, the red light burning sigils into the ground, and as he did so, more howls around them could be heard, louder and, if possible, more vicious.

Then Tobias straightened up, his expression deadpan and set hard in a way she didn’t recognise. “Why not just kill us?”

Brynmor didn’t look up, and paused only in his incantations as he continued burning glowing symbols into the ground with his wand. “I don’t murder children.”

Tobias’s jaw tightened. “We’re both seventeen.”

“Oh sweet Merlin, Grey… shut up, or I will kill you before he does,” Tanith gasped between gritted teeth, elbowing him hard in the side. “Now’s not the time to antagonise the nice Death Eater man.”

“Doesn’t really matter. I was lying; I do murder children.” Brynmor did glance up as he finished the last of the sigils, then raised his wand, jerking it for the red light to shoot up into the air, through the trees and into the night sky. “But I usually need a reason.”

“We’re interfering with your ritual to infuriate the wolf spirit within the lycanthropes and further bind them to the dark magic within You-Know-Who?” Tobias asked coolly. But there was an emptiness to his voice Tanith hadn’t heard before, something cold and dead.

Brynmor gave a dark chuckle, and she felt Tobias flinch inexplicably at this. “Interesting theory. But you’re wrong.” He shrugged the wolf pelt off his head, and pulled the ridiculous oven mitts off his hands. “You’re not interfering. I’m quite finished.” He peered into the sky for a moment, scowling. “Now, if Robb’s done his job…” The last part was a mutter, one Tanith didn’t care to think much about. For the first time, she was glad Cal wasn’t around.

Then Brynmor looked at her, and she flinched visibly. “Do I know you?” he asked, brow furrowed. “…well, not you. I know your nose. What’s your name?”

“…Tanith…”

“I don’t care – family name.”

She swallowed. Lying sounded pretty dumb. “Cole.”

Brynmor’s eyes narrowed. “Relative of Daedalus Cole?”

“He’s… my father.” Brynmor had probably dined with him at the big Death Eater gala balls her father had thrown spinelessly back in the First War.

A chuckle from Brynmor, another flinch from Tobias. “Really? I guess this is my lucky day. Daedalus Cole’s daughter, walking right into my lap, so to speak.” His smile twisted, and the big man’s humour took on a somewhat more sinister twist. “Definitely not going to kill you, girl. Well.” He shrugged. “Not yet.”

“There’ll be people looking for us,” Tobias growled, his voice low and rumbling and harder than she’d ever heard it. “People who know we’re out here, and will want to find us when they hear of what’s going on…”

“That’s nice… I intend to be far away from here.” Brynmor peered at the sky again, brow furrowed. “Where is he…”

“Rushing off for the next big plan of evil?” Tobias asked, not without a hint of irony in his still-cold voice.

“You are becoming a slight annoyance,” Brynmor stated, pointing his wand at Tobias. “And while I am currently planning on leaving you unconscious in a ditch when myself and Miss Cole here head for sunnier climes, push my buttons and you might not be doing it with all of your limbs. Got me?”

As Tanith’s stomach churned again, Tobias stood up sharply, wand slipping from out of his sleeve and into his hand with a speed she didn’t know he was capable of. “You’ll be taking her no goddamn…”

A flick of the wand from Brynmor, a lazy and entirely unconcerned gesture, and Tobias keeled over backwards, stiff and flat on the ground and evidently subject of a petrifying spell.

“Which limb’s your favourite?” Brynmor demanded of Tobias’s wildly moving eyes, moving to stand over the immobile student. “Blink once for arm, twice for leg, then we’ll move onto left and right. I want to know, so I can be sure to spare that one when I’m done. Just to play nice, you know?”

Tanith stood, but slowly as the wand was flickered in her direction, her hands in sight and certainly not going for her own wand. “Please… look.” Her stomach churned again, and she swallowed. “Leave him alone, and I won’t be any trouble, okay? I’ll co-operate. He’s no use to you, no threat to you.”

“Bear in mind that you’ll co-operate whether you want to or not,” Brynmor pointed out coolly, stepping away from the immobile Tobias, scowling again at the sky. “But we might have a wait, so I’d be obliged if you could at least co-operate by keeping your mouth shut in the meantime.”

Tanith nodded slowly – and then hated herself for opening her mouth immediately afterwards. “But just one thing… me? My father? He’s a nobody. A fop. Why do you… why do Death Eaters care?”

Brynmor blinked at her. “You don’t know?”

“He didn’t pick a side in the last war… hasn’t in this one…” Tanith’s voice was weak and confused.

“Spy networks and annoying agents might not make for standing up and publicly declaring his allegiance, but I know he’s no friend of the Dark Lord’s. That makes him a foe.” Brynmor stared at the night sky for a few more moments, then raised his wand yet again to send off a fresh set of red sparks.

“Spy…?”

“We should move.” Brynmor’s wand moved once more, this time levitating the frozen Tobias off the ground. His eyes were still moving with a wild anger, fingers twitching faintly even through the spell, but he was truly locked in place.

Tanith took a step back. “I thought he was a waste of time?”

“Oh, I’ll dump him in a ditch – alive, don’t worry – once I’m ready to leave. Someone might stumble across him here, though, and that won’t do at all if we haven’t made our speedy departure, love.” Brynmor gave her a wink devoid of any kind of genuinely warm emotion, but which was reminiscent enough of one of Cal’s expressions to make her shiver.

“Nrrrr…” Tobias’s lip curled a very little, but with his jaws clenched and the rest of his body not co-operating, that low growl was the only noise he could quite make.

“So you just come with me, lass, and we’ll be out of here nice and quickly. You don’t want to catch a cold in the Derbyshire night, do you?” Brynmor gestured towards the undergrowth as he made his way towards it, Tanith moving along beside him as he dragged the levitating form of Tobias in his wake with a simple wave of his wand.

“Won’t we have to worry about the werewolves?” Tanith asked, unable to now keep the distinctive waver out of her voice as they emerged out of the small copse into the open expanse of this corner of the moors.

“Not at all. They shouldn’t look twice at us. If they do, I can send them packing without a word.” The light at the end of Brynmor’s wand glowed a faint red as he raised it, enough to illuminate his face in a devilish fashion and send a flurry of furry footsteps in the area skittering in the opposite direction.

“And can I be dismissed so easily?” a familiar voice rang out, right before darkness blacker than the night enveloped them, sending Tanith’s heart leaping up into her throat.

There was a loud curse from Brynmor, though all that she could see of him was the red tip of his wand. “Ritter! You fool, you’d try the same trick twice?”

Footsteps sounded behind her, fast and firm. “Last time, darkness was so I could make my escape.” Something whizzed past her ear, and she heard it hit the ground not too far away, and far closer to Brynmor. “This time, flight is not my intention.”

Whatever her tutor had thrown past her glowed, even through this pitch darkness, with a sudden white light, enough for her to see the small orb lying on the ground. Then it crackled with that same light, until it swept about the orb and focused together to shoot out in a bolt in the direction of the red glow.

Even this seemingly impenetrable darkness was pierced for a moment as Brynmor let out a distinctive yelp, his body now visible as the white energy crackled over him for a moment before it dispersed.

A few seconds, a gasp from Brynmor, then his wry chuckle. “…what’s that? A Shocking Orb? A child’s toy?”

“Yes,” came Ritter’s calm drawl. “But it did pinpoint your location quite nicely, didn’t it?” Then there was a crunch of the sound of flesh on flesh, a solid blow landed, and a grunt which was definitely Brynmor’s.

There was the sound of struggling for a few seconds, impossible to extract any valuable information from, until finally Brynmor’s voice echoed through the dark. “Impedimenta!”

There was a thump, the sound of a body hitting the ground, just as the darkness around them began to disperse. Tanith’s hand came down desperately for her wand, which was sticking out of her pocket, as silhouettes became visible.

Her tutor was on his knees on the muddy ground, moving with a sluggish speed of the spell that had hit him. Brynmor stood over him, wand in hand and pointed at his opponent, blood streaming from his nose but otherwise apparently unharmed.

“You took your little toys to a wand fight again, Ritter? It might work for a getaway, but in a scrap?” His booted foot came back to kick Ritter in the stomach with a sickening crunch, enough to send the Slowed squib onto his side with a grunt of pain.

Tanith’s hand came up, clasping the wand, anger running through her stomach and ready to lash out at the unprepared Brynmor. But before she could open her mouth to utter one of the many spells running through her head, Tobias’s voice echoed across the greenery firmly.

Vulnera!”

The Blasting Curse hit Brynmor straight in the shoulder, exploding with a slight spark and sending him staggering sideways, away from Ritter, and clasping at his arm with a yelp of pain.

“You filthy, low-down, murdering bastard…” Tobias’s voice was cold and hard and firm as he strode towards Brynmor, expression completely dead-set, his wand entirely at the ready.

“Grey? Let’s not get too close,” Tanith interrupted, her own wand also pointed out at the staggering Brynmor as Ritter slowly staggered to his feet with the effects of the curse wearing off.

Brynmor’s eyes flickered between the two wands pointed at him, and then at the belt Ritter wore with an array of bulging pouches with mysterious magical contents. “Guess there is a little spark in you, squirt, after all,” he stated flatly at Tobias, before swishing his own wand downwards at his legs. “Celeritus!”

Then he was off, running away into the darkness of the night with a magically enhanced speed. Tobias swore loudly, running forwards a few paces and throwing a Leg-Locker Curse at Brynmor’s retreating figure, but the Death Eater easily side-stepped with his sudden great speed.

And then he was gone, leaving the three of them standing outside the small woods at the foot of a high Derbyshire hill.

“Altair!” Tanith’s wand dropped and she moved to throw herself at her tutor, wrapping him in a large, needy hug. She felt the tall man grunt with as she impacted, and she reeled back quickly, hands upraised as Ritter clutched at his ribs. “Sorry!”

“It’s… fine…” Her tutor’s clear eyes were twinkling with faint amusement and relief, but his forehead was creased with a combination of pain and surprise. “I’m just… glad to find you both here.”

“How did you find us, sir?” Tobias asked, tearing his gaze away from the spot where Brynmor had disappeared, and padding over to the other two.

“Your friend Caldwyn made it to the Auror post at the outskirts of the Displacement Aura. He’d been lucky; he apparated very close to it, and managed to find his way there,” Ritter began, still rubbing at his bruised ribs.

“Cal’s okay?” Tanith asked eagerly, but not without a certain grimace after the close encounter they’d just had with their friend’s criminal father.

“He’s fine.” Ritter raised a hand calmingly, looking at her. “He let us know where you had camped. When the lycanthrope activity reared its head in the Peak District, your father sent me to talk to the Magical Law Enforcement officers monitoring the situation. They managed to enchant a Portkey to take me to this location.”

“The Aurors didn’t think us worth rescuing themselves?” Tobias asked, with a slight sneer of irritation on his lips.

“Ironically, the Aurors were hunting for the Death Eaters responsible. We never calculated you’d be right on top of Thanatos Brynmor himself.” Ritter pulled a pocket-watch out, flipping it open and reading it briefly. “Speaking of which, we should Portkey back to let the Aurors know. They’ll want to tighten their search.” His other hand moved away from his ribs to pull out a rolled-up newspaper, which he waved at them. “One of you two should be able to use your wands to activate this, correct?”

Chapter 4: The Truth
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Chapter 3: The Truth



“You know there’s a tonne of forms and shit to sign when we’re done here?” Jacob Van Roden wore an expression of mild irritation masking faint apprehension as he swung open a heavy metal door, the creaks echoing through the cold, dim, stony corridor. The records department of the Office of Magical Law Enforcement had seen better days, days when it had been further tended to, particularly in the more obscure corners pertaining to decade-old files. Like the corner he and Tobias Grey were poking around in right then.

“I just need a proof of identity, correct? Next of kin rights?” Tobias’s voice hid a faint shake, and he wrapped his coat a little further around his shoulders as he stepped in first, allowing Van Roden to close the door behind them. “I’m allowed to see this. I’m entitled to see this.”

“But… a lot of bureaucratic mess.” Keys jangled as Van Roden slipped them back into his pocket. “I mean, technically this isn’t even opening hours. It’s not until next Wednesday that Boris will be on the desk and can process the petition…”

“Hogwarts Express leaves in two hours.” Tobias checked his watch briefly, then nodded in confirmation. “I’m not disappearing off to Scotland until I’ve got this sorted. It’s even more of a mess for me to get a petition to leave school grounds to apparate down here.”

“You could always… you know… not do this?” Van Roden reached out a hand to tentatively brush his friend’s shoulder. Even though Hogwarts alumni and Auror-in-training Jacob Van Roden was a couple of years older than NEWT student Tobias Grey, Grey still had the advantage of height over him, and didn’t seem deterred by the half-hearted gesture.

“I need to know.” Tobias did pause for a moment, though, and turned to face Van Roden. “Jake, you’ve seen me through a lot of mess, right? You can see me through this?”

“I saw you through prefect training and getting crap from Gryffindor Head Boys. Right now, I’m helping you because you know how to get in contact with me, I have the access to get you down here, and it’s, well, your legal right.” Van Roden looked distinctly unhappy. “For the record, I think it’s a bad idea.”

“My father’s killer was never identified… not legally. All the individual suspects were proven Death Eaters who were incarcerated. My mother agreed – and I can’t really blame her – with the establishment’s decision to let Dad end up in the pile of random casualties so as to not clog up the justice system. Pinning down every individual Death Eater for every individual crime they committed, when they were already doomed to Azkaban for life with no hope of parole, wasn’t really deemed feasible.” Tobias carried on striding down the corridor, peering through the slightly dim lighting.

“So why get it back up again? Either your father’s killer’s still in Azkaban, or he’s dead, or he’s one of the Death Eaters at large who’re being hunted anyway. Legally, it doesn’t change a thing.” Van Roden paused for a moment to consult the label at the bottom of one of the pearly orbs the size of his fist resting amongst the rows and rows of identical other orbs on the shelves set into the walls of the records corridor before he moved to catch up with Tobias.

“It matters to me. I know Mum watched the recording when I was little… it’s one of my earliest memories. I can’t have been more than three, probably right at the end of all of the legal mess after the war… Fitzpatrick, we must be getting close.” Tobias glanced up from the label Van Roden had been peering at.

Van Roden folded his arms across his chest, the flickering light of the candle dangling off the ceiling casting erratic shadows across his slightly craggy face. “So what brought this on, fifteen years later?”

There was a pause, and Tobias turned around, heading on down the corridor. “I… something reminded me. Or… someone. I mean, I’d seen Thanatos Brynmor before, in the Daily Prophet, but I wasn’t paying complete attention, and he looked different when he was in jail…”

“Wait, Brynmor? The Big T?” Van Roden scurried to keep pace with Tobias. “You don’t want to go poking there, Grey. I mean, really not. He’s one of the scariest out there. Lestrange, Malfoy, Avery, Robb… and Brynmor. Doesn’t play so well with others, so hardly a trusted lieutenant, but… scary.”

“I know.” Still Tobias didn’t turn around, but there was an edge in his voice which made Van Roden falter yet more. “Probably the scariest man I’ve ever met. And that even counts Altair Ritter…”

Finally, Van Roden grabbed him by the shoulder and yanked him around. “Alright, enough. You might have a legal right to do this, see all of this, but I don’t have to help you do it right now. I can make you wait until Boris’s shift, and make you officially petition, and go through the paperwork, and then it’ll be Christmas before you see this mess unless you can get out of Hogwarts for the day.” The young Auror’s expression was grim, uncompromising, and just about boring through Tobias’s own determined gaze. “So play ball. And explain.”

There was a long silence as the two men stared at each other, willowy Tobias facing off against the small and slightly-built, but sturdy in spite of it, Van Roden. He’d been called a Pocket-Sized Prefect while still at Hogwarts, and had often been underestimated on the basis of that stature. But that had usually been at the expense of those facing him, for he was relentless, intelligent, and had the quickest wand-hand Tobias had ever seen.

“The how isn’t hugely important… no, really.” Tobias raised his hands in submission, taking a step back as Van Roden raised an eyebrow. “But I saw Thanatos Brynmor. In the flesh. And it reminded me of the time, when I was small, that my mother watched the Saint Mungo’s recording of the Para-Healer unit that my father had been on. There had been a few Death Eaters there, I know, so it wasn’t clear who had killed whom. And my father’s killer was never legally confirmed. But now I’m pretty sure Brynmor was there. Masked. So I didn’t recognise his picture when he escaped Azkaban – but now I’ve heard his voice… I recognise it. From the recording. He had to be there.”

“You could check the files for that,” Van Roden pointed out. “If he was there…”

“I want to know if he did it. And if not, who did.” Tobias’s expression was blank, and utterly implacable. “So, that’s the explanation. Now, it’s my right to take a look.” He reached out slowly to gently lift the orb resting on the shelf that Van Roden hadn’t properly taken a look at, and noted with a faint start that the label underneath it did, in fact, read ‘Grey’.

“I… it won’t change a thing, Toby,” Van Roden said gently, his eyes narrowed with apprehension. “The knowledge will eat at you…”

“So will the uncertainty.” Tobias’s brow was furrowed as he stared deeply at the orb he held, tendons in the back of his hand taut from the visible effort of stopping it shaking.

Van Roden shook his head. “Vengeance… it doesn’t solve a thing, Toby. Trust me.”

One eyebrow arched with accusation and a hint of arrogance that Tanith Cole herself would have been proud of. “This is hardly the same as you putting Exploding Powder in Hooper’s pumpkin juice after he beat you for Head Boy, Van Roden.” Then he squeezed the orb, the apparently glass surface bending impossibly under the pressure, and grey dust erupted from the top of it.

The dust flickered in the dim light for a few moments, before swirling around to form up into shapes some several feet high. There was a flat ground, a tree, some broomsticks, some bushes… and, mobile, erratic, shapes of people.

“…no lasting damage here. This is a Cruciatus work.” A voice emanated from one of the dust shapes, now solidifying into that of a young woman, and echoed about the cramped corridor. The speaking figure was bowed over a prone form, which shifted faintly and was letting out a quiet moaning.

“Get a Sleeping Charm on him; we’ll get the Sententia to look at him when we’re back to Saint Mungo’s.” The second of six figures, one of the four that wasn’t prone, spoke, and with a voice which sounded familiar. As the dust began to pick up details, showing that the scene was this of a back garden of a desolated house, the door hanging open to show a smoky gloom inside, the speaker’s features became further defined to show a sharp nose, well-defined cheekbones, and a face which, for Van Roden, bore distinctive similarities to Tobias Grey.

For Tobias himself, he knew he was looking at his father in this old Saint Mungo’s on-the-scene training recording.

“Broken limbs here. This is relatively minor. Any bodies must be on the inside,” the third Para-Healer stated calmly, straightening up from the second prone form.

“And there will be bodies,” Robert Grey sighed. “Otherwise, why would there be a Dark Mark?”

“…to lure people here and cause more chaos?” another familiar voice asked as shapes emerged from the open back door of the small house. This familiarity was not comforting, however, and sent a shiver up Tobias’s back as he now recognised the voice of Thanatos Brynmor, the burly Death Eater stepping into the garden with two other white-masked companions.

The four Para-Healers straightened up, the fourth of them, who had been somewhat to one side and not actively paying attention to the injured parties, raising his wand instantly. But one of the masked Death Eater flanking what was thought to be Brynmor was quicker, his wand whirling up and green light filling the air.

The female Para-Healer’s scream pierced the light of the Avada Kedavra curse as her colleague collapsed to the ground with no sounds of his own. And then the chaos broke loose.

Curses flew through the air from Robert Grey and the third Para-Healer, tackling the Death Eaters and sending the other one flying back inside the darkness of the house with one well-aimed spell. But retaliation was swift, and Grey himself was knocked onto his back, blood spurting from a large cut in his chest.

It wasn’t enough to silence him, though, for as he hit the ground he looked over at his female colleague. “Run! Go! Get the brooms and run!”

The next few seconds of dusty footage were obscured as the Para-Healer followed Grey’s instructions, stepping right in front of the Recording Orb for a few long moments. When vision was clear again, the third Death Eater was back at the doorway with his companions, the two Para-Healers back on their feet, spells flying through the air.

Almost immediately, the recording began to shake, and the perspective changed. Tobias knew the training recordings of Saint Mungo’s were attached to the Para-Healer’s broomsticks, and it seemed the fleeing witch had been in charge of it. So scenes of fighting shifted away, being replaced by rooftops of houses, the echoes and noises of the spells flying around still filling the sound of the recording.

There was another small scream from the witch as another bellowing of ‘Avada Kedavra!’ filled the air, and the broomstick pitched downwards in apparent panic for a moment. The shift was brief, but it brought the fight back into the view of the recording, just in time to see Robert Grey keel over, surrounded by the green light.

Then a few seconds of the recording moving away – and then another scream, the recording going wild as the broomstick apparently veered wildly, before a flash of red light filled the dust.

Van Roden looked over at Tobias as the dust slowly swirled back into the orb he held, his expression one of distinct apprehension. There was a long silence before Tobias set the orb slowly down on the shelf, his expression absolutely deadpan.

“Identifying the Death Eaters in that case would have been difficult,” the Auror stated slowly, keeping his voice level and definitely officious. “Voices are harder to use for such things, even with spells to compare such recordings. It would be difficult to get a conviction off this.” He shook his head. “No wonder the mess never went to a judiciary.”

“I didn’t want information for a conviction. I wanted it for my own peace of mind.” Tobias’s brow furrowed slowly as he delicately pulled his hand away from the orb, leaving it to rest on the shelf, suddenly lost amongst the hordes of others, all identical to the naked eye.

“Well, there wasn’t even a good picture of which of the three masked Death Eaters cast the curse,” Van Roden said, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice. “Identifying the culprit…”

“…Is just a matter of recognising the voice.” Tobias didn’t look up, his gaze locked on some irrelevant spec of dust on the shelf. “Or, rather, the laugh.” Then he straightened up, cleared his throat, and turned to head back down the way they had come, towards the door.

Van Roden scurried to keep up with Tobias’s long-legged stride. “Grey? What are you…”

“I know that voice. I know that laugh. And it doesn’t make a difference, because the man is high on the Aurors’ Ten Most Wanted list – three or four, perhaps, vying with Idaeus Robb and Bellatrix Lestrange for attention. He’s going to be hunted, and arrested, and probably given the Kiss. Anything else laid at his feet is going to just be a drop in the ocean of crimes this man has committed.” Tobias’s voice was disturbingly level as he continued to stride down the dark, dusty corridor at quite a rate.

“Thanatos Brynmor… man, that’s so not healthy…” Van Roden rubbed his forehead as he continued to follow in Tobias’s wake. “Don’t get silly. You met him… you met him…?” This fact just seemed to catch up in the Auror’s brain as he spoke.

Tobias waved a hand dismissively. “Around…”

Again, the heavy hand fell on the student’s shoulder to whirl him around, and Van Roden’s face was deadly serious. “Do not screw with me, Tobias. This is serious. He is serious. He’s a dangerous man, and if you want to go out and chase him…”

“Do you think I’m an idiot?” Tobias finally looked incredulous, shaking his head. “Chase him? I’ve seen him. I know just how scary he can be. I know he could kick my arse six ways to Sunday with both hands tied behind his back, no wand, and a Silencing Charm on him. I am not going to embark on a task trained Aurors would find difficult.”

Van Roden narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “So… what was the point…?”

“I needed to know.” Tobias’s brow furrowed again. “I used to assume it was some Death Eater who was never going to get out of Azkaban, or had maybe been Kissed. But I didn’t have that peace of mind since Azkaban went to hell in a hand basket.” He shrugged off Van Roden’s arm, and turned back to shove open the door, stepping into the brighter light of the more polished wooden stairway, leading back up to the Magical Law Enforcement Offices.

There was a pause as Van Roden continued to follow his friend, head down, hands shoved in his pockets, the two of them emerging into the relatively quiet morning bustle of the actually active offices. “So… you going to tell Cal?” he murmured, one eyebrow raised tentatively.

Tobias let out a snort which sounded both indignant and shocked. “Hell no,” he replied, hesitating in his stride down the corridor, their voices now being hidden from the ears of those around them by the sounds of activity. “Do I look that stupid to you? Don’t answer that.”

Van Roden grinned at last, shaking his head very slowly. “It’s the right of Cal to know exactly what his mother and father did during the war, and as far as I’m aware, it’s a question he’s never asked. I hope, for the kid’s sake, he never does.” The grin soured slowly, and he glanced up at Tobias. “Just as I sort of hoped you’d never ask questions like these.”

They were through the busy offices now, the Magical Law Enforcement Headquarters surprisingly mundane in this section, with nothing more than bureaucratic papers flying around and administrative duties being carried out. It was on the higher levels that there were the training and briefing rooms, the case files, the investigation discussions, but for now, they simply emerged from the carpeted corridor into the opening lobby with its polished wooden floor, a simple reception desk, and the front door, through which sunlight streamed enthusiastically.

Tobias straightened up as he paused before the front door, pulling his jacket around him a little tighter. “A lot of people left a lot of things to rest after the last War, I’m beginning to figure out. Now You-Know-Who’s back, we can’t really afford to sit on things any more, in case it’s important.”

“And heaven forefend you pass up on an opportunity to make life difficult for yourself.” Van Roden rolled his eyes. “You better get going, anyway, Grey. The train’s not too long off, and I’d hate for you to have to explain why a prefect needed a Portkey.” He extended a hand towards his friend and protégé.

Tobias shook it firmly, a faintly amused expression about his face. “Difficult? You seem to be confusing me with Tanith, Jake.” Then he grinned, and nodded. “I’ll see you around.”

The trip from the Magical Law Enforcement Offices to King’s Cross Station wasn’t too long when you took Apparition into account, and it was only just comfortably ten to eleven by the time Tobias had retrieved his luggage from a Muggle locker at the station, and charged his way through to Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters.

He didn’t see many faces he recognised and cared much about in the final hustle towards carriages and compartments as he dragged his trunk along the platform, heading towards the Prefects’ Carriage. It wouldn’t have taken him long to join in the fuss, get a comfortable compartment with Tanith and maybe some of the other seventh-year prefects, and relax to watch the train draw away from the station. He’d have had time indeed, and could take it leisurely.

Instead, he stopped and stared at the train for long moments, brow furrowed, just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the platform and the fuss. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to go to the station alone, bidding his working mother farewell earlier in the morning, so the sense of isolation in the crowd was not unusual enough to him to jar.

Then Tobias shook his head, stepping towards the Prefects’ Carriage, and gave a small, nostalgic snort. “Last time ever,” he mumbled under his breath, before hauling his trunk onto the train behind him, and moving into the corridor filled with prefects.

The place was filled with a buzz he hadn’t seen on either of his previous years of the journey up in this part of the train, and he narrowed his eyes in faint confusion before a hand grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him sideways into a compartment.

“Oh… hey Tanith.” Tobias blinked at the sudden intervention, staggering slightly. “Thanks, it looks a bit crazy out there.” He glanced around the compartment, empty save the two of them, and moved to shove his trunk onto one of the overhead luggage racks.

“Yes… and I wanted to grab you…” Tanith looked tired, more tired than he’d seen her in a while, and was gripping a copy of the Daily Prophet in the hand she hadn’t used to yank him.

“…can’t keep your hands off me?” Tobias wore a grin which was a little too broad as he glanced back, and blinked as he saw her flinch unexpectedly. It had been a while since he’d been prepared to make jokes like that until recently… but any recent jokes of such flavour had usually been received in good nature.

“Not that funny.” Tanith took a step forward, raising the paper slowly. “I don’t suppose…”

“Hey, Tibs!” Tobias turned as he heard a small, petulant mewl from the cage sitting on one of the chairs, and he reached down to pull the door open and allow the now fairly podgy grey tabby cat to lunge up his arm and try to collapse on his shoulder, something for which he was a little too large. The effort was abandoned after a few seconds of yelps of pain from Tobias at claws sinking into his shoulder blade, before his pet Tiberius leapt onto one of the free seats instead, curling up to purr triumphantly.

“Yes… he’s been making one hell of a fuss while in the cage,” Tanith said, shaking her head with faint irritation.

“He doesn’t like being cooped up.” Tobias leant down to scratch behind the cat’s ear, rubbing his shoulder with the other hand. “It makes him tetchy.”

“It makes him whiny.”

Tobias glanced up, grinning again. “Thanks for taking care of him this morning. I didn’t want to cart him around London, and I wasn’t going to leave him in a locker at King’s Cross. Besides, I’m not entirely sure on my Apparition with a passenger, even one as small as him…”

They both turned as the door to the compartment was pushed a little further open to show new Head Girl Jennifer Riley poking her head in. She, too, looked rather more drawn than even the first day of school would normally require, and glanced between the two of them. “Good to see you both here… was wondering if we could have a chat? Got the others in the compartment next door… there’s all the stuff to consider.”

Tobias blinked in faint confusion, but he nodded as Tanith stepped towards the door. “Sure, Riley.” She tossed the newspaper onto the bench, forcing Tibs to move over one seat so he could begin gnawing at a corner of it, and headed towards the corridor, Tobias in tow.

The compartment next to theirs had clearly been claimed by Gryffindor prefects, though only Riley and Tom Everard were present, the other seats taken up by the rest of the seventh-year prefects. Tanith moved herself into the final spare seat as Tobias stood by the doorway, his eyes scanning the crowds. Everard and Riley, himself and Tanith, Cho Chang and Craig Sharpe, Lisa Grahams…

Tobias raised an eyebrow, glancing around but not really expecting to see anything else. “So O’Neal’s decided to not descend from on high and grace us with his presence?” he asked, unable to keep much of the bitterness out of his voice, and not particularly caring – it was a bit late at this juncture to try and pretend he didn’t resent the Irishman for getting the Head Boy spot.

Instead of the glares from the girls and the possible muttered agreements from the guys, his words were met with a shocked, stony silence, full of horror that couldn’t have been more ominous had it slapped him in the face.

It helped, then, when Lisa Grahams of Hufflepuff stood up and then actually slapped him in the face, before storming past him out of the compartment and into the teeming mass of younger prefects.

There was still silence from the other five as Tobias blinked owlishly, one hand raised to his now somewhat sore left cheek. Somewhere in the background he was dimly aware of the train beginning to pull away from the station, though nobody seemed to care. “What…”

Then Tom Everard stood up, and although Tobias was definitely taller than him, there was a wave of anger washing off the Gryffindor that made him more inclined to cower than face him down. “I don’t believe you… I don’t believe you…”

“Believe what?”

Riley had leapt to her feet by now as well, and shoved past Tobias roughly, knocking him into the doorframe. “I actually thought you were one of the good ones,” she muttered, before darting off in Grahams’ wake.

Everard was approaching now, only inches away from Tobias, and he could now see the shorter student practically shaking with a rage which he had never before witnessed. “You bitter, twisted little snakish…”

“Hey!”

Finally, Tanith had stood up, placing a hand on Everard’s shoulder. “Let’s calm down. Everyone!” A glare went out to the two remaining Ravenclaw prefects, both of whom just wore expressions of disbelief at the sight before them.

“Calm down? Are you going to…”

“Everard, sit down, and shut up.” There was a note of authority Tobias hadn’t heard in Tanith’s voice before, and it seemed Everard hadn’t either, for he backed off, face twisted in a scowl, and sat down, still glaring daggers.

Tobias lowered his hand from his sore cheek. “What the hell did I miss?”

Tanith sighed, rubbing her face with her hands. “You didn’t read the paper today with your business in town, did you?”

“I didn’t get the chance.” His stomach began to twist, a sense of impending doom creeping over him, and he felt all the blood rushing away from his head. “What did I do?”

Craig Sharpe reached over for a dog-eared copy of that day’s Daily Prophet, and thumbed through it a few pages before folding it up and passing it grudgingly over to Tobias. “Bottom one.”

Trying to keep his grip level, Tobias glanced down at the paper, turning it over and squinting a little. “Death Eater attacks in Cork… wizarding family casualties… O’Neal… oh, shit…” His eyes widened and he stared at them all, feeling distinctly light-headed. “This was last night? I… I didn’t know!” The exact words he’d uttered which had caused this mess echoed back in his head hauntingly. “…‘from on high’?”

Everard nodded slowly, his scowl more of a grimace but the anger visibly fading. “Yeah,” he said, voice thick.

Tobias sat down heavily in the seat Riley had vacated. “I think I’m going to be sick,” he muttered, head in his hands.

“The school wants to keep this a bit low-key,” Everard continued, wringing his hands together and returning somewhat more to his usual slow-to-anger self. “That was what we were going to talk about… damage control, until a new Head Boy’s picked…”

New Head Boy… any thoughts of hope appearing at the notion just made Tobias feel even more sick, and he could hardly look up at Everard, the obvious candidate. “Yeah. Don’t want panic. Hogwarts is meant to be somewhere the war isn’t going to break and traumatise us. The people who matter… will know.”

“The Hufflepuffs are in a state,” Craig Sharpe said, leaning back in his seat. “It’s like Diggory all over again. Two Quidditch captains, Head Boys-in-waiting, golden champions… all round nice guys…”

“We’re going to have to make sure the other four Hufflepuff prefects buck up their ideas to make sure Grahams isn’t carrying everything,” Tobias said, straightening up as best he could. “And… shit! Grahams!” His cheek tingled in memory of the slap, and he sprang to his feet, almost bumping his head on the luggage rack. “I’ve got to go explain…”

Everard winced. “I’d leave it until later…”

“No time like the present,” Tobias muttered, ignoring the Gryffindor and heading for the door.

He found Grahams and Riley, through the fuss of the rest of the prefects, in a compartment at the other end of the carriage. The door was only half-open, and in it sat the two girls, Riley producing a cascade of tissues from seemingly nowhere and proffering them to Grahams as she sobbed quite significantly.

Tobias wondered whether the Cruciatus would be less painful than this entire escapade, and he tensed himself for at least being shouted at as he stuck his head around the door to the compartment.

“Uh…” was about the extent of eloquent greeting he could manage.

Heads whipped around to face him, Riley confused and uncertain, Grahams deeply distressed and angry.

“Fuck off, Grey,” was the simple response from the Hufflepuff.

“I came to apologise,” Tobias said, trying to not shrink back. “I didn’t know. I hadn’t read the paper. I was just being bitter about not getting Head Boy… I didn’t know what had happened to Connor, and I’m really, really sorry…”

Grahams seemed unimpressed. “You’re still a bitter Slytherin wanker and I don’t want to hear it.”

Tobias straightened up, somewhat affronted, definitely defeated. But before he could say anything in return, Riley had stood and stepped over to him, moving to stand in the doorway between him and Grahams. “I’ll be right back, Lisa,” she said quietly, pushing Tobias out into the compartment, the Hufflepuff hardly seeming to notice.

“Thank you,” Riley said quietly once they were in the mostly-empty corridor, looking genuinely contrite. “And… I’m sorry about what I said. I don’t really think you’re that much of a horrible person to genuinely say… something like that.”

Tobias raised a hand to rub at his cheek again. “Um… no. I really wouldn’t have. Not if I’d known. I was just… pissy.” There was a pause as he considered her words. “You think I’m a horrible person at all?”

Riley had the good grace to look a little sheepish at that. “Well… I am a friend of Annie’s. And it’s sort of the rules that an ex has to be utterly loathed by the girl and her friends.”

Tobias winced faintly, glancing away and breaking eye contact. “I suppose being a Slytherin makes it even easier,” he said, this time real bitterness creeping in.

“It does,” Riley agreed, somewhat blandly. “But… if it’s any consolation? Sharpe’s a massive control-freak, and shit at it. And Tom’s lacking in a large deal of drive and motivation. I know ambition is something Slytherins have in spades, and organisation a forte of yours…”

Tobias blinked at her a little obliviously. “What?”

Riley shrugged. “Well… I guess all that will be Professor Dumbledore’s choice. I’m just saying.” Then, without another word, she slid the door open to the compartment still holding a distressed Grahams, and slipped inside.

Tobias stared at the closed door for a few seconds until he turned away, his eyes rolling skywards. It took a few long moments before he reached his final decision. “Yep. Fate hates me.”

Chapter 5: The Change of Heart
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Chapter 4: The Change of Heart


 
“I still say it’s bollocks. Urquhart’s only a fifth year.”

“Flint was made captain in his fourth year.”

“Flint had been in the team since his second year. He had matches under his belt. Urquhart’s only been in the team a year. It’s our sixth!”

“Fifth, if you count the lack of matches with the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Or four and a half, with the cancellation in third year.”

“Still more than Urquhart!”

“We’re seventh years, Miles. I think the House wants someone more long-term.”

Miles Bletchley glowered over his copy of Quidditch Weekly across the train compartment, unable to entirely comprehend just how and why the voice of reason in this argument was Adrian Pucey. Perhaps his classmate had grown out of his ridiculous ‘insanity’ of their younger years. Perhaps the potions had helped. Perhaps, now with Montague even more vegetative, Pucey just looked good in comparison.

Perhaps Bletchley was losing his mind.

“What we need, with the loss of a captain like this, is stability. Stability can’t be provided by someone who doesn’t know his team,” Bletchley said firmly, lowering his magazine and folding his arms across his chest.

“I think Urquhart knows everyone in the team. And those he doesn’t, we won’t know either.” Pucey shrugged.

“It should have been me… or you, Adrian! Don’t you see that?” Bletchley waved his hands in the air irritably.

Another shrug from Pucey. “I got more to worry about than Quidditch.” He lowered his head to return his attention to his Transfiguration textbook. “You should too. You’ve got that Ministry interview in six months.”

“Don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t pay attention to.” Bletchley sulked, glowering across the train compartment before his attention finally fell on the silent Montague.

Edmund Montague had never been particularly bright, but rather exemplified the strange interpretation of the Sorting Hat that ‘cunning and ambitious’ meant ‘built like a brick shit-house’. These aspects weren’t mutually exclusive, but the fact that most such Slytherin specimens were also devoid of brain cells entirely confused Bletchley.

Perhaps they had been provided as flunkeys for those, like himself, with a bit more vision. That would be why Brynmor, well built yet capable of stringing a sentence together, was the unimaginative Grey’s flunkey. The two would sort of meet at the middle in mediocrity, and perhaps balance each other out.

Montague had previously been one of those whose place was, Bletchley considered, to serve. That had made it all the more galling that he had been Quidditch captain, until that rather fateful encounter with the Weasley twins and a regurgitating toilet some few months ago. The Gryffindor pranksters had received laughs and applause, particularly when they’d made such a getaway weeks later. Montague had emerged brain-addled and confounding even Saint Mungo’s experts as to whether or not he’d recover all of his mental faculties.

Considering there hadn’t been much there to begin with, the entire affair was, in Bletchley’s opinion, rather like kicking a man when he was down.

“Urquhart’s a good tactician. Solid man,” Pucey said, voice sounding appeasing.

Bletchley’s lip curled. “He’s a little suck-up and a tit.”

“Which Gryffindor are we on today?” a voice from the compartment door wondered, and all three – Montague rather more slowly – looked up to see Jack Urquhart himself leaning in the doorway. “McLaggen? Or Everard?”

“Everard,” Bletchley said without missing a beat. “He’s trying to sink his claws into the Head Boy job with that sod O’Neal getting himself killed.” He felt a small twinge at this – O’Neal hadn’t been a bad sort, but this kind of misdirection would be rather needed if he wasn’t going to get himself kicked off the team for bad-mouthing the captain, rather than taking over and ruling supreme.

“Damn Gryffindors. Of course, couldn’t tolerate the fact that it wasn’t one of their golden boys who got the job.” Urquhart helped himself to one of the empty seats, next to Bletchley and across from Montague.

The former captain was drawing on a piece of paper with a pencil. Bletchley didn’t want to see what was being scrawled. He’d already secretly drunk himself into a stupor then cried himself to sleep last year after one of the final Quidditch practices, where Montague had been unable to tell left from right, and was convinced they were playing Gryffindor back in their fourth year. He’d kept calling Crabbe and Goyle Derrick and Bole, and had even called Malfoy Higgs once, knocking memories back another two years.

“Of course, Grey didn’t manage to grab it. If he’d done what he was supposed to, instead of wussing out on the Inquisitorial Squad, then he’d have had that in the bag,” Bletchley muttered instead.

Urquhart shook his head. “You kidding, with Dumbledore back? Grey was smart to not get wrapped up in Umbridge. You know everything she instituted is going to be sneered at.”

“…lucky, more like,” Bletchley muttered. “And we get hanged, again.”

Urquhart shrugged. “You gotta take the good with the bad.”

Bletchley scowled briefly. “Thank you, Merlin, purveyor of pearls of wisdom. Now, can I help you?” he snapped, with far more vitriol than he really intended.

Fortunately, his new Quidditch team captain merely smiled at this. “I wanted to talk to you about the team. All three of you.” He nodded to Pucey and Montague, though looked rather more uncertain with the latter.

“Adrian and I would be happy to help,” Bletchley said smoothly. Montague had looked up at his name being mentioned, though, and seemed to be listening quietly.

“We’re going to need some new Beaters.”

“Oh, thank fuck for that.” Bletchley sagged in his seat with relief. “I thought you were going to keep us with the gruesome twosome for another year. Bring back Bole, hell.”

Urquhart smiled slightly. “I remember watching Derrick and Bole, and they were great. But not, actually, as good as another pair of Slytherin Beaters I’ve seen play.” Bletchley frowned with confusion, unable to really recall anyone who wouldn’t have been before Urquhart’s time. “Falco and Brynmor.”

“Falco left school. Like, three years ago.” Bletchley was aware that he sounded as dumb as Montague then.

“Brynmor didn’t.”

“Brynmor quit. He told Flint to shove it.”

“I’m not Flint.” The big Slytherin shrugged, smiling a little enigmatically.

“…Malfoy won’t like it!” was, finally, the last issue Bletchley could recall as to why Cal Brynmor was a problem.

“If Mister Malfoy doesn’t like the decision of the team captain, then Mister Malfoy can, as you said, shove it.” Urquhart gave that smile again.

“He’ll take the brooms!”

The captain straightened up, then leaned forwards towards Bletchley. “No he won’t,” he said quietly. “Because the person who gave us those brooms was Lucius Malfoy, recently arrested Death Eater, who cannot tell the Slytherin Quidditch Team what to do – or reclaim what was, if I’ve been informed correctly, a gift.”

Bletchley stared at Urquhart with a sort of dazed fascination. “Are you going to kick Malfoy?” he asked, in something of a whisper. Their Seeker’s lack of success on the pitch had been a matter of much contention amongst the team.

“I don’t want to push it too far.” Urquhart shook his head. “Nor do I want it to seem as if Slytherin is not grateful for the favours we receive.” His expression darkened a hint. “But I will be appointing a substitute Seeker. Just… you know… in case.”

Bletchley continued staring, somewhat captivated. “In case something happens to him?” His voice was a little hoarse.

“No… in case he fucks up again.” Urquhart now looked faintly confused. “Why, what’s going to happen to Malfoy?”

Bletchley shook his head to clear it. “Nothing. Sorry. Been reading too many Auror books.” He straightened up. “So, when are we going for try-outs to get Brynmor in?”

“Try-outs? The man’s a natural with a bat on a broom. We just tell him.” Urquhart stood up, adjusting the collar of his robes.

“What…” Bletchley also stood, brow furrowed. “Now?”

“No time like the present. Unless you think it’s a bad idea? I do want your opinion, after all.”

“No… Brynmor’s good…” Even Bletchley had to grudgingly concede this. “He just… may try to hump you in the middle of the train if you give him the news now.”

“I’ll have you to tear him off and explain to him calmly that I’m not his type.” Urquhart gestured to the door. “Shall we?”

Bletchley dumbly followed his captain into the mostly-empty corridors. A few compartments down he could hear the laughter of Urquhart’s fifth-year friends, Talley and Harper, drifting through, but it was past there that they walked.

Urquhart rested a hand on Bletchley’s shoulder companionably. “I’m glad I’ve got you out here, Miles,” he said softly, glancing back at the compartment they just left still housing Pucey and Montague. “Because I wanted to talk to you about Edmund.”

“Monty? What about him?” Bletchley stiffened a little.

“I need to drop him off the team. Get someone else in, maybe Harper.” Urquhart sounded genuinely remorseful.

“But he’s… been on the team since our second year. We haven’t lifted the cup since then. This would be his final chance…”

“And I only have three chances as Captain to lift the cup, and I don’t want to waste them on politics or dead weight.” Urquhart’s expression hardened, and Bletchley realised that he was potentially standing in the way of someone who really, really wanted to win. “Montague’s a liability. He’s addled. I’m amazed he’s still at school.”

“He… tries…”

“Does he succeed? Because I need winners here. That’s why I’m getting in Brynmor and dropping those two clowns. That’s why I want to have a backup Seeker if Malfoy has another one of his ‘moments’. That’s why I want your advice, Miles, as the person who’s been in the team longest without a reputation for or reality of insanity.” Urquhart’s grip on Bletchley’s shoulder tightened a shade, and Bletchley winced.

“Erm… I think we can drop him. I don’t think he’ll take it hard.” He didn’t seem to be understanding much these days anyway, Bletchley reasoned. “But… isn’t Malfoy also dead weight?”

“Malfoy can have moments of sheer brilliance if he doesn’t have his head rammed so far up his own arse. Like usually at Gryffindor matches with his pathetic rivalry with Potter.” Urquhart looked disgusted, and Bletchley wasn’t sure if this was at Malfoy, the rivalry, or part of the general dislike that most of Slytherin held for Harry Potter. “So we may bench him for the first game. We’ll see. Maybe recent events have made him grow up.”

“Right.” Bletchley mentally kicked himself. He’d seen Malfoy play. He’d played alongside the runt in every match their Seeker had seen. He knew Malfoy could be good. He knew it was mostly against Gryffindor where he – and, indeed, often most of Team Slytherin – tended to fall apart. He should have made the same call as Urquhart.

But by then they were at a compartment where Urquhart was pulling the door open and inside sat Bletchley’s classmates, Melanie Larkin, his ex-girlfriend Ariane Drake, Gabriel Doyle – his lip curling as he saw how the second was fawning over the third – and then the man himself, Caldwyn Brynmor.

“Brynmor! Got space?” Urquhart threw himself jovially onto one of the spare seats without waiting for a reply. Bletchley, sour-faced, simply waited at the door, arms folded across his chest and feeling like second fiddle – at best. Spare change was more like it.

“Jack, come on in.” Brynmor gave a smile Bletchley figured was too forced, too broad. Of course the Welshman would be crawling so far up Urquhart’s arse for a place on the team. It wouldn’t be the best-kept secret about the place that Crabbe and Goyle were candidates for being dropped. “How’re things?”

“God-awful dull for the most part. All out of pumpkin pasties and there are still hours to go.” Urquhart patted a rumbling stomach. “None of our prefects about?” He glanced briefly outside, past Bletchley, then about the compartment.

Doyle gave an exaggerated shrug. “Haven’t seen them. Still caught up in poncy business, I suppose.” He deftly reached out to catch the Chocolate Frog which had leapt out of Ariane’s hand unexpectedly, opening his grip to show it perfectly unharmed before passing it back to her.

Bletchley scowled as Ariane thanked him, giggling a little. Doyle outright gave him the creeps. There was something about the way he moved, looked, talked, which seemed so perfectly calculated and yet Bletchley couldn’t remember his classmate faltering once in six years. He’d seen everyone he knew lose their cool or just plain fuck up – except for Gabriel Doyle.

“Well, leave them to it. We’ve got real business here.” Urquhart dismissed this concern with a vague wave of the hand, then turned back to Brynmor. “So, Cal. You been practicing on a broom lately?”

“Whenever I can. Trips across the Peaks can make for some decent challenging flying. Though, heh, haven’t been to the Peaks much lately.” Brynmor gave a slightly nervous chuckle at this last part.

“Good. You think you’re as good as you were three years ago when you were last on the team?”

Brynmor’s expression was dimly guarded. “I think I’m better. I’m stronger, I’m quicker… and you’re wrong on the three year count, in that I was subbed in for the Ravenclaw match last year, remember?”

“A bit of a last-second emergency. But I recall. And you played well.” Urquhart leaned forward, now with a hint of urgency, clasping his hands together. “I need a good team if we’re going to lift the cup this year. To be precise, one new Chaser, two new Beaters, and one backup Seeker.” He chewed on his lip briefly. Bletchley couldn’t imagine why he would be nervous – it wasn’t as if Brynmor was going to react in any way other than being his perpetual servant. “I want you as a Beater.”

Brynmor straightened up slowly, and from the expression on his face he had expected this. “You said backup Seeker. You’re not replacing Malfoy?” His voice was low, guarded.

“No. But I want someone on hand if it’s necessary.” Urquhart’s expression turned flat, and even the giggling between Doyle and Ariane Drake faded in the face of this conversation as the compartment fell silent.

“You don’t think it’s necessary already? You know why I quit. Hell, you were in the common room at the time. Malfoy’s a goddamn liability in the team.” Brynmor’s face hardened, and Bletchley wanted to kick him. His dreams on a silver platter, and he was arguing issues three years old?

“Actually, he’s not. He plays well when he’s not acting up for a crowd or too intent on beating Potter. He was superb in the match against Ravenclaw, and you were in that match, so I know you saw it.” Urquhart rubbed his hands together slowly.

“I believe he’s still too erratic. When he’s good, yes, he’s very good. But you can’t predict what he’s going to do in any given match, and in my opinion, he’s off more than he is on.” Brynmor shook his head, wincing.

“In the face of recent events, I think he’ll have either hardened up or completely broken. If he’s gone to hell, we’ll know in early trials. If not, I think we may have a Seeker to beat Potter.” Urquhart straightened up. “As for why you quit originally, that was a matter of bloody stupid pride.”

“Flint kept Malfoy in for favouritism and…”

“Malfoy shouldn’t have been in the team at that point, I do agree. He was too inexperienced. But he had strong potential, and you’re an idiot if you can’t see that Flint hammered that into him. The Seeker Malfoy’s turned into is a better one than we’d have had if he hadn’t been in the team from that early an age.” Urquhart pointed a finger at Brynmor. “Not to mention the fact that a slightly duff Seeker with raw potential was still an acceptable loss in the face of a set of brooms which have made a tremendous difference in the matches.”

“Not enough for us to win. Two seasons on the trot we’ve been beaten by Gryffindor.” Brynmor scowled.

“Yes, but the first time was against Saint Potter himself and the fucking brilliant Oliver Wood. No, they didn’t have either last year, but we still had Wood’s legacy. This year, that’s all but gone save Bell and Potter himself, and I think if Malfoy shapes up, he can beat him.” Urquhart shrugged. “As for your decision to quit, it was premature. One match, and you already wrote Malfoy off. That was dumb as all fuck.”

Brynmor straightened up, scowling, as Bletchley just watched in astonishment. He’d expected the offer to be made and for Brynmor to jump with glee. Not for the Welshman to argue and for Urquhart to insult him.

“I didn’t want to be on a team which was going to pander to a little shit like…”

“That’s sport. You play to win. That doesn’t mean you’re nice, or fair. It means you do what you need to put the right team together. Flint needed the brooms more than he needed you or Falco.” Urquhart folded his arms across his chest. “And now, I can have my cake and eat it, if you remove your head from your arse.”

Brynmor narrowed his eyes at Urquhart resentfully. “Is this how you recruit players? Fucking them around? It’s still me or Malfoy.”

“You haven’t grown up in three years?” Urquhart leaned forwards. “I don’t take ultimatums from my players. You want your pride, you can walk off and watch your final chance to see Slytherin lift the cup from the stands. You want to win, then you trust your captain, cowboy up, and come and help us lift it.”

There was a pause as the big Welshman still looked suspicious and resentful. “If Malfoy doesn’t get his act together you’ll drop him?”

“I’ll drop him with the same prejudice I’ll drop anyone else in the team who doesn’t make the grade,” Urquhart promised, nodding firmly. Then he slowly extended his hand towards Brynmor. “So?”

Another pause, Brynmor obviously thinking. Then he scowled and swore under his breath, before reaching out and shaking Urquhart’s hand firmly. “Fine. I’m in. For the last goddamn hurrah.”

Urquhart gave a slightly smug smile, but it was one of confidence rather than empty pride. “You guys all do as I say, and we will lift that cup. This, I promise you.” Then he stood, stretching slightly. “I need to be going. But have a ponder on second Beaters. Who you think you can work with. And we’ll have a talk about that later.” He headed towards the door, Bletchley shifting to one side to let the Slytherin captain out.

“Take it easy, Jack.” Bletchley clapped Urquhart on the back as he left, then moved further into the compartment to close the door behind him, and throw himself down onto the recently abandoned seat. “The man’s psychotic.”

Brynmor didn’t appear to be listening, rather, staring out into space a little fixedly. “…back on the team…”

Bletchley sighed, then turned to the other three. “Psychotic?”

Doyle gave a smug grin. “No more than any other Quidditch player I’ve seen in action,” he claimed. “You all possess a certain… drive…”

“Ambition. Y’know. What the hat talks about?” Bletchley said rather peevishly. “I guess I’m just a traditionalist at heart.”

“And I think Jacky boy back there is going to out-tradition you. While simultaneously rocking the boat.” A shrug from Doyle.

“Malfoy won’t like having a sub,” Melanie Larkin said at last, frowning a little. “I’m not sure why he needs one, he is rather good…”

This seemed to jerk Brynmor out of his stupor. “The kid’s a bloody liability, is what he is. If only Jack would bin him now…”

“Oh, so it’s Jack now, is it?” Doyle chuckled. “Not ‘that bastard who’ll probably suck up, same as everyone else’?”

Brynmor grunted. “What can I say? I re-evaluated.”

Chapter 6: The Way We Live Now
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Chapter 5: The Way We Live Now



 
“This way, Grey.”



Tobias was tall, but even he had to step up to a rather frantic pace in order to keep up with the speedy gait of Professor Snape as they wound their way down the corridors of Hogwarts. It was dark outside and the halls were empty, but there still seemed a warmth about the place, as if the school knew that once again it had been filled with the bustle and life of a new year.

 

“Professor? Where are we…?”

 

“No time for that.” Snape cut him off quickly with a curt wave of the hand, and Tobias fell silent; he had never felt as if he shared the favour the professor seemed to hold for Slytherin House, and it seemed he should not try to push his luck.

 

The banquet had finished about half an hour earlier, and a very tired and overfed set of prefects had set about ushering first years into the common room and ensuring they were settled into the dorms. The very second this arduous task had been complete, the head of Slytherin had appeared as if from nowhere, and instructed Tobias in no uncertain terms to come with him.

 

He almost jumped out of his skin as they turned another corner sharply, the torch-light flickering to provide only erratic illumination, and found himself face to face with the shadowy form of the Bloody Baron, hovering in the air motionless, as if it had been waiting for them.

 

“Professor,” the low, grating voice rattled from the ghostly lips, “McGonagall is still in her office, and Flitwick has not left the Ravenclaw common room. You are the only one on the move.”

 

Snape didn’t stop, simply carried on striding down the corridor, the Bloody Baron falling into step beside him, leaving Tobias having to be cautious in avoiding stepping through his house’s ghost. “Sprout has not selected a new, ah, champion?” The trademark sneer tugged at his lips, but without a crowd, there was little enthusiasm.

 

“There are whispers of Summerby, Professor,” the Baron stated coolly. “But I do not think others share your agenda.”

 

“Good.” Snape gave a curt nod of the head. “It’s the least Dumbledore can do, considering…” Another scowl. “Don’t flag, Grey. We don’t have time.”

 

Tobias gave a heavy sigh, moving up the other side of Snap to flank him so he was no longer worried about treading on incorporeal chains. “Professor, what’s going on?”

 

“I’m offering you an opportunity at achieving that which you have desired since you came to this school. You failed once; pray, for the sake of your House, that you do not fail again,” Snape said, not looking at him as they rounded another corner. This one brought them to a dark hallway facing a large, intricate golden statue of a phoenix.

 

“For the sake of…?”

 

Snape waved a hand curtly at the statue, urging him forward as he approached it. Tobias looked around for the Bloody Baron, but the ghost of Slytherin House was already gone, fading through a wall.

 

“Slytherin House will need representing this year. With Slughorn’s ridiculous machinations we can hardly rely on him to ensure we are heard at the highest levels of the school’s authority,” Snape said vaguely, looking about a little furtively before he leaned towards the statue, and whispered something Tobias didn’t even try to overhear.

 

There was a rumbling from underneath the statue, then it began to rotate slowly, rising as it did so and bringing up a spiral staircase leading through a hole upwards Tobias hadn’t noticed originally.

 

“Won’t you be representing the House, professor?” Tobias frowned at Snape curiously, expecting him to go first up the stairs.

 

But Snape didn’t move, instead gesturing upwards. “Knock once, then step in,” he said, his voice a little softer now. A little. “I will always champion Slytherin House against the miscreants that seek to besmirch our name. But I shall not have the time to be a constant defender this year.”

 

Tobias blinked. “What? You’re going to be here all the time…”

 

“I have many new responsibilities as teacher of Defence Against the Dark Arts, Grey, not to mention interests of my own which are hardly your business or even within your comprehension. Now go, the headmaster’s waiting for you.” Snape pointed again up the stairs.

 

“The headmaster…” But Snape had given him a little shove now, and despite his outright confusion and increasing nervousness, Tobias headed up the steps, knowing better than to argue with the old Potions Master.

 

So he padded up the stairs, doing his best to keep his mind clear, because he knew he was very much in danger of turning and bolting if he stopped to particularly think about what he was doing. Instincts of self-preservation didn’t seem to be taking into account the wrath of Severus Snape.

 

The door at the top of the steps was heavy and oaken, and as instructed he gave a couple of brisk nods before turning the handle and stepping inside…

 

…to find himself in possibly the most remarkable room in the whole of the school. Although the back of his mind identified it as the headmaster’s office, with Professor Dumbledore himself seated behind the desk in front of him, his eyes and attention were drawn to the curios in the room, not to mention the extensive bookcase packed with volumes that already he suspected were not available in the library – or at least, in a more common, rudimentary edition.

 

But this time the instincts did kick in, and brought his attention to the very real fact that he had been dragged to the headmaster’s office by the head of his house and had absolutely no idea why he was there. That, and Professor Dumbledore was looking at him, and Tobias had never quite trusted the headmaster’s kindly smiles. They always seemed to be hiding something.

 

“Uh… Professor Dumbledore? Professor Snape said you were expecting me…” He tentatively padded forwards, hands now clasped behind his back to appear officious and presentable, and to stop them from shaking.

 

“Mister Grey, please have a seat.” Dumbledore extended his good hand forwards, gesturing to the chair facing the desk. His other hand was out of sight, though Tobias had seen it at the feast, blackened and dead. “I apologise for requesting your presence at this hour of the night. I’m sure it’s been a very long day.”

 

‘Request’ wasn’t exactly how Tobias would have phrased Snape’s conscripting of his company, but he wasn’t about to argue with the headmaster as he padded over to the chair and sat himself down a little gingerly.

 

“The First Years are off to sleep and there are enough other Slytherin prefects to keep an eye on things for the evening,” he assured Dumbledore, stifling a yawn and neglecting to mention that he would only really consider two of the prefects left to be worth their salt. And one of them was new.

 

“Yes, apparently you do run a very tight ship in the common room, according to Professor Snape,” Dumbledore said, nodding.

 

Tobias gave an exaggerated shrug, a degree of heat rising to his cheeks. He was cursed, he knew, with the fact that he blushed incredibly easy, killing an awful lot of his hard work on deadpan expressions and non-committal phrases. “I wouldn’t say run… I’m hardly the only prefect, and I wouldn’t dream of ordering Tanith Cole around…”

 

Dumbledore watched him for a few long seconds as Tobias did his best not to squirm under the piercing blue gaze. Then he sat up a little straighter. “You’re taking a NEWT in History of Magic, are you not, Mister Grey?”

 

Tobias nodded. “I am… I’m the only one in my year. Probably at all now. Possibly ever.”

 

A ghost of a smile tugged at the headmaster’s lips. “Certainly the subject has not proven itself to be very popular. But Professor Binns is quite determined.”

 

“He’s not really…” Tobias frowned, and cleared his throat. “He’s an excellent historian. But not necessarily the best person to bring history, uh, alive.” He felt the words slipping away with him even as he spoke, and fixed his gaze on a point somewhere above Professor Dumbledore’s head for safety.

 

But the headmaster just chuckled. “No – yet there are some staffing decisions even I do not have control over. Professor Binns shall be in the office and the classroom, if we like it or not.”

 

“I’m sure there’d be someone else out there who could teach the subject… and a word with Professor Binns… maybe he could…” Tobias’ voice trailed off as he realised he was giving staffing advice to the headmaster. He grimaced, and cleared his throat. “I’m sure something could be done to raise NEWT interest.”

 

Dumbledore gave a wry chuckle, leaning back in his chair. “I had a somewhat similar conversation with a young Ravenclaw some twenty or so years ago, Mister Grey. But your father went so far as to accost me in the corridor with papers of research into possible new History Professors and a few methods of gently ‘encouraging’ Professor Binns to leave the post.”

 

Tobias felt a twist in his stomach at the mention of his father. It hadn’t even occurred to him after this morning that Robert Grey would have left his own mark upon Hogwarts, that the older teachers would know him. Professor Snape, of course, was too young, but Dumbledore…

 

He managed a small, not very enthusiastic smile. “I confess, sir, that it was through his book collection that I found my own love for magical history. I didn’t think that you knew him, sir.”

 

Dumbledore gave a slow nod. “Hardly well, but he was Head Boy in his time, as you know, so we had the occasional conversation. His was a remarkable intellect – reputedly like your own, Mister Grey – but it seems you are a good deal more cautious than he.”

 

The smile turned wan. “I’m a Slytherin for a reason, Professor Dumbledore.”

 

“Indeed. It’s for that, in fact, that I actually called you up here.” Dumbledore stood, walking away from the desk and over towards a small chest, sitting on the top of a tall table. As Tobias looked, he reached into his voluminous robes to pull out a whole ring of keys, shuffling through them before inserting one of the smallest into the lock, and opening the small chest.

 

“Professor Snape speaks quite highly of you,” the headmaster continued, blocking the contents of the chest from view with his back to Tobias. “Declares you diligent, intelligent, and with a true sense of House spirit which you nevertheless do not permit to blind you.”

 

Tobias hadn’t the faintest idea that Snape could always even remember his name, so this was coming as a bit of a shock.

 

“He also said that you are hardly paid the amount of respect by your housemates that you are, perhaps, due. But Slytherins have always been a varied group, from the fiercest isolationists to the most devoted pack mentalities. It is easy to fall afoul of all such elements,” Dumbledore said.

 

“I… suppose that’s true,” Tobias said, frowning. “Sir, what’s all of this about…?”

 

Dumbledore turned back, holding something in his good hand that Tobias couldn’t quite identify. “The death of Connor O’Neal is a tragedy. He was a fine boy, and one who should be remembered. But he was not the first killing of this war, and by no means shall he be the last, and one of the most dangerous traps that death lays out is encouraging us to linger, rather than carrying on living.”

 

Tobias’ stomach tightened at the mention of O’Neal, his brain flickering back to that morning. “Yes, sir. He was a good guy, but… yes, sir.”

 

“As such, I had to go back to basics in examining options for a new Head Boy. Of course, traditionally a prefect is selected, but not exclusively, and my intent was to be careful to select somebody who could in themselves bring the right message to the school.” Dumbledore raised a finger on his good hand, the rest of the fist still curled around something Tobias could now see was small and round and gold and he already knew what it was…

 

“I have chosen you, as you have obviously guessed.” A ghost of a smile tugged at Dumbledore’s lips. “And it is partly, yes, because you are a prefect of Slytherin House. But do not think, Mister Grey, that I am considering you to be a stunt, or a gesture to appease people.” He stepped over, setting the Head Boy’s badge down on the desk before Tobias. “But you have demonstrated that you have the strength of character and intent to perform all of the tasks that a Head Boy should. Your being a Slytherin is, I believe, a mere bonus – one that should inspire students of your house and others to overcome those boundaries of being Sorted and, I hope, follow your example.”

 

Tobias looked cynically down at the Head Boy badge. His stomach was twisting and his heart pounding as he stared down at the culmination of six years worth of hard work and determination, a prize he’d thought had slipped through his grasp. And yet his cynicism shouted at him to not accept it all so easily, to ensure this wasn’t a dream he would wake up from at any moment. “If I may, sir,” he began, his mouth dry, looking up at Dumbledore. “If I’m so good, then… why wasn’t I selected in the first place?”

 

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow at this, looking genuinely, kindly, amused. “I could talk about how a Hufflepuff was also an excellent choice for unity, but I think that would be beneath us both, Mister Grey. The truth of it is, quite frankly, that you are very good – and Connor O’Neal was better.”

 

Tobias couldn’t help but chuckle sadly at this as he reached out to take the badge, feeling the weight of it as an electric shock seemed to run up his arm at the lightest touch. “I suppose that’s quite fair, professor,” he had to concede, a lot of the cynicism fading from him as he reached up to remove the prefect badge and gingerly replace it with the new emblem.

 

The rest of the conversation, of prefect organisation and further discussions of future policies passed in something of a blur for Tobias from then, and though he knew the information was in his head somewhat safely for future analysis. His legs were numb by the time he left the office, and it was in something of an automatic daze that he made his way back to the Slytherin dungeon, stuttering so badly on the password (‘Outrageous Fortune’) that it took three tries before he finally stumbled into the common room.

 

The sight he had expected was a low-key, quiet and tired Slytherin Common Room, exhausted from the travel and over-fed from the feast, all catching up with friends concluded on the train and ready to get some sleep before the march onwards to classes.

 

Instead – and his numbed brain had a lot of trouble coping with this – he was greeted with a loud roar of glee from what looked like the entire House assembled before him. All Tobias could do was blink at them for long seconds until Cal lunged out of the crowd, grabbing him. What he had expected to be an entirely bemusing hug was, instead, a grip to lift him with unanticipated strength onto the nearest coffee table.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen!” his best friend shouted with glee over the cheers of the room. “The first Slytherin Head Boy in nine years, and the first any of us have ever seen in our academic lives!”

 

Another cheer rocked the room, and Tobias just found himself staring owlishly with complete bemusement. The numbness in his head had begun to spread all over his entire body, and he wasn’t particularly prepared to deal with the new badge on his chest, let alone the sudden adulation.

 

“…how did you know?” he managed to say at last, his voice not sounding like his own, but rather hollow and forced.

 

Nobody seemed to notice, and Cal just laughed loudly. “Because I’m not an idiot, and it had to be somebody, and even if all the Seventh Year boy prefects had been taken up to see Dumbledore, you’d have kicked Sharpe and Everard’s arses with one hand behind your back, you big lout.” He gave another chuckle, which was merged with laughter and some proud cheers from the room.

 

“Which reminds me, Bletchley…” Cal turned to his classmate, who, grumbling, reached into his pocket and handed over a galleon.

 

Tobias peered at him. “You bet against me, Miles?”

 

“Actually, I bet for continued Slytherin subjugation,” Bletchley said haughtily, but there was a good-natured smile on his face. “For once, Grey, I’m glad to be proven wrong. Even if not necessarily by you.”

 

Tobias forced a laugh, but it came from his throat rather than his belly and seemed to echo around his hollow insides, not shaking the numbness.

 

“And it seems the subjugation is over with you in place,” Bletchley continued, stepping up to join Cal at the front, the two flanking him like bodyguards or advisors. “Rather fitting that it also just took the death of a damn mudblood to bring it about.”

 

The word ‘mudblood’ felt like it hit Tobias in the face with a thump, but he was still too numb to register it. His brain did, however, wake up – even if the rest of his insides didn’t – at the reaction of the crowd. The laughter stopped at the reminder of a death, but the muttering which followed it certainly didn’t seem particularly sorrowful, and the murmur about the room was one of agreement with Bletchley’s sentiment.

 

Although his emotions didn’t seem to be working – glee, anger, anything – Tobias’ brain was waking up, at least, and he raised his hands, expression stern.

 

“We won’t have that word in here,” he said, lifting his voice over the hubbub. “Connor O’Neal was a good guy, and you’d all do well to remember that. I hope I can be half the Head Boy he’d have been.”

 

Bletchley looked rather surprised. “Well, I… of course O’Neal was a decent sort, if a little bit too much of a bloody do-gooder. I was just saying that it’s ironic…”

 

“‘Mudblood’. I won’t stand for having that word in here.” Tobias straightened up on the table. “That, right there. That’s why other houses hate us. That’s why a Slytherin hasn’t worn this badge since Titus Crockett. Attacking and belittling and hating everyone else has gotten us nowhere, and yet we persist?”

 

“Merlin’s beard, Toby, it’s just a word,” a mutter came from below him, and Tobias looked down expecting to be face-to-face with an irritated Bletchley. Bletchley, however, was looking admittedly sheepish, and with a small degree of surprise at Cal, who shrugged. “No need to get on your high horse,” the Welshman continued.

 

The numb sensation in Tobias’ brain remained even as it felt like something was clattering around his insides. “Cal, you of all people should know that this is more than just a word…” he said at last.

 

Cal shrugged exaggeratedly again. “Miles didn’t mean anything by it. Let’s not make a fuss.”

 

The two friends stared at each other, Tobias feeling a slight ringing sensation in his ears, Cal’s expression reading a casual lack of care. Silence had fallen on the common room, everyone gaping at this most unusual of events, until Bletchley stepped forwards, raising his hands.

 

“…and… the new Head Boy, ladies and gents! That’s it, off to bed, time for beauty sleep, we always have to be the best-looking house, chop chop…”

 

Tobias was sure that hell had frozen over as the common room stirred itself to the motivating words of Miles Bletchley, and he stepped off the table to continue to stare at Cal, not quite believing what he’d just said.

 

“Two years ago you threatened to put Montague through a wall for using that word,” he said at last, the churning in his stomach not shattering the numbness.

 

“That was two years ago. I’ve got bigger things to worry about than words.” Cal shrugged again.

 

“It’s not just a word, and you bloody well know that!” Tobias said, voice incredulous. “You know what it represents, and you’ve always hated that as much as me!”

 

“Yeah, well, back then it was just an old dead attitude. It’s coming back now, isn’t it.” Cal’s expression grew darker. “I’m just saying, things aren’t so black and white now. The things our parents went through are returning.”

 

Tobias had to clench his jaw tight to stop himself from flinching at the reference to Cal’s parents.

 

His friend didn’t seem to notice as he carried on, somewhat oblivious. “And, well, you keep on going on about understanding the world around you. And the world is right now full of some messy, varied attitudes. Isn’t it best to understand them, ‘specially as they’re colliding?”

 

“It’s bigotry, Cal, and I don’t need to understand any more than that.” Tobias shook his head. “It’s just blind hate.”

 

Cal looked somewhat exasperated. “See, it’s not. Hatred of Muggles and Muggle-born isn’t just something people woke up one day and decided to indulge in. You’re the history student. You know as well as I do the reason we hide the Wizarding world is because otherwise we’d be hunted down by their small minds and bigger numbers.”

 

“Yeah, it is.” Tobias didn’t argue, but his eyes were narrowed. “But the hiding works, to everyone’s benefit, so there’s no need to attack them, and there’s no need to hate the ones from that world who come into our world.”

 

“But it’s not going to be bloody ‘our world’ forever if you’ve got kids with Muggle attitudes, Muggle culture, Muggle thinking entering the wizarding world. Diluting our traditions. Pureblood houses don’t remain pure just because they like having a Squib show up every once in a while, but so that they’re still listening to Celestina Warbeck at Christmas time except of Radio bloody One!”

 

The common room, which had been drifting off to bed in drips, now with mostly just some lingering fifth-years and above left behind, halted in its activities at Cal’s raised voice to stare at the two of them.

 

The sudden silence around them seemed to penetrate Cal’s brain, and the bigger boy straightened up, rubbing his eyes. “…I don’t believe that shit, Tobias, you know that,” he said at last, his voice sounding weary. “But I’m just saying… people think these things for a reason. We want to disagree with them, we need to know what we’re disagreeing with, rather than just spouting blind one-sided half-truths. Because if you do, you’re as bad as those who hate Muggle-borns for the sake of it, without understanding.”

 

Tobias continued to stare at him for several long seconds. “Be that as it may… what the hell’s happened to you, Cal?” he asked at last. Logical arguments and sensible rebuttals were all very well and good, but his best friend had always been the most adamant fighter against those sorts of attitudes throughout their school lives.

 

“I did some thinking. You’re not the only one who’s allowed to do that.” Cal straightened up, voice gruff. “Time to grow up, Toby. We can’t be kids with Right and Wrong any more.” He stretched, stepping back. “…anyway, I’m going to bed. Congrats on the Head Boy thing. You deserve it.”

 

Then he was gone, heading up the stairs, leaving Tobias behind him on his own in an increasingly emptying common room, the numbness in his body not abated by the shock in his belly or the ringing in his head.

 

He wasn’t sure how long he stayed there, but it couldn’t have been for more than a few minutes as the large clock set into the far wall, always ticking and as tall as he was, chimed ten almost at the same time as the door to the common room swung open to let Tanith, holding a stack of books, stagger in.

 

“Huh… people gone to bed already…?” she asked a little groggily, before blinking at the clock and wincing. “Oh. I lost track of time. No wonder I was getting glares from Madam Pince. You’d think they’d appreciate keenness on the first day.”

 

Tobias looked up at her, stopping himself in the unconscious fidgeting he hadn’t realised he’d been doing with his new badge. “…reading list from Jacob?” he asked. “Oh… he says ‘hi’, by the way.”

 

“Seen me most of the day and you only just remember to pass on the message, but you can still give me all of the dates of the Goblin Rebellions going back at least a thousand…” Tanith’s voice trailed off as her eyes dropped to his chest, and she let out a loud, uncharacteristic squeal as the pile of books were dropped onto a sofa and she lunged across the room to wrap him in a bear hug which held as much unexpected strength as Cal’s lifting had earlier.

 

“I knew it! I knew you’d get it! You deserved it all along, you’re just the best damn candidate for it…”

 

The jolt of surprise at her reaction seemed to set off a chain of events in Tobias’ head as, finally, he began to feel something other than the horrible numbness in his belly. At first it was shock and surprise at Tanith’s sudden overt affection – but the moment a genuine emotion had crept in there, he was hit in the gut with a massive wave of almost overwhelming realisation of what had happened.

 

And, spearheading that realisation, was guilt.

 

“…second best,” he corrected her, pulling away from her embrace with a swiftness that prompted a slightly hurt expression which missed his notice. “I only got it because O’Neal… you know.”

 

Tanith subsided a little, biting her lower lip. “I… well… you deserve it more than Sharpe or Everard would have. And… uh… these things happen.”

 

“War? War happens?” Tobias realised he was beginning to sound deeply self-pitying, but after the face-off with Cal on top of everything else, he wasn’t too sure he cared. “If O’Neal hadn’t been killed…”

 

“…or what if you hadn’t pissed off Umbridge last year and lost the prefect badge?”

 

Tobias blinked at her. “What?”

 

“What if you’d taken Herbology or something instead of History of Magic so Professor Sprout had liked you more?”

 

“What does that have to do with anything?” he asked her at last.

 

Tanith sighed. “If, if, if. If wishes were broomsticks, then Squibs would play Quidditch. All of this happened. It got you here. Does what happened to O’Neal suck? Of course it does.” She shrugged, though her words were genuine. “Was it unfair you lost ground to the other three over the Inquisitorial Squad debacle when you were showing more spine than them? Definitely.”

 

Tobias stared at her for a few more seconds, then subsided a little. “I… I guess you’re right.”

 

“I know I’m right. You got the job. You deserve it. Enjoy it.” Tanith patted him on the shoulder, the gesture rather lacking the enthusiasm of the earlier hug. “You’ll do really well. It’ll look great for the job hunting.” She gave him an uplifting smile.

 

He rubbed his temples slowly. “…you win.”

 

“I always win.” The smile turned into an impish smirk.

 

Tobias groaned, and straightened up. “In unrelated news, do you know what’s eating at Cal? He’s been a bit… weird.”

 

Tanith shrugged. “I’ve probably seen him less than you. Ask Doyle?”

 

He glanced around. “Gabe… I haven’t seen Gabe since I got in. Huh. Wonder where he went.”

 

Another shrug. “It’s Doyle. He’s probably up to something incredibly mysterious.” Tanith shook her head. “So, what did Cal do…?”

Chapter 7: The More Things Change
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Chapter 6: The More Things Change



 
“I’m telling you, mate,” Gabriel hissed at Tobias as the two wound their way through the corridor on their way to lunch, “this Head Boy badge? Utter skirt magnet. Well, for the geeky kind of skirt… but then, you always had something of an intellectual bent, you picky bugger…”
 

“Gabe? Shut it,” Tobias replied eloquently as Gabriel’s voice trailed off to a faint muttering of an assessment of Tobias’ interest in the fairer sex. They were a bare week into the year, and within a few days Gabriel had declared that the rise in social standing given by being Head Boy included an increase in desirability.

 
This was disturbing, and not just because it was starting to get Tobias increasingly paranoid of anyone of the opposite gender other than Tanith who spoke to him. Sometimes up to and including teachers, such as on the one morning after he’d pulled an all-nighter to finish a Transfiguration essay and had been staring bleary-eyed at Professor McGonagall with beady fear for several hours. But most particularly worrying was that this latest obsession was being held by Gabriel – haughty, smirking, distant, and elusive Gabriel. It was the kind of fixation he expected Cal instead to have grabbed onto.

 
But Cal had spent the days since their arrival acting very peculiarly indeed, skulking around from place to place and filling an awful lot of his time with writing. His already flagging marks in class were suggesting this writing wasn’t essays or any schoolwork, and any time he was questioned on the matter he became increasingly erratic and evasive. Whatever was eating him, he certainly didn’t seem to have Tobias’ sex appeal on the mind.


“You mock me now, but you’ll see,” Gabriel continued. The Arithmancy class had, Tobias was convinced, melted his brain. The reconstruction of the principles of magical spells from the ground up was enough to challenge the best of students, and Gabriel, although smart, was not the best of students. “You’ll be accosted by half a dozen scantily-clad sixth years if you walk into the Great Hall for lunch now.”

 
“It didn’t happen yesterday, so I think I’ll take my chances.” Tobias rolled his eyes. “What the matter with you? Or everyone else, really? You’re all just going nuts.”

 
“I, uh…” Gabriel shook his head, but rather quickly, sharply, as if to clear it. “Nothing. Just had a headache lately. Trying to burn it off.”


Tobias frowned at his friend. “Yeah? Don’t need to go to Madam Pomfrey or anything?”

 
“Nah, it’s nothing. Just a slight twinge behind the eyes. It’ll go away by itself,” Gabriel said firmly.

 
“You sure? Because you’ve been tossing and turning a lot at night, I’ve heard you, and if it’s stopping you from getting to sleep…”

 
They had reached the door to the Great Hall by now, joining the throng of traffic heading in for lunch just as another group coming in the opposite direction reached the entranceway at the same time. Tobias and Gabriel, with manners drilled into them by old families, immediately came to a halt at the basic first impression that the other group were girls.

 
They rather dimly regretted their courtesy when they realised that they’d just made way for a gaggle of Gryffindors, and Tobias’ frown deepened to display his even deeper regret that he’d just made way for his ex-girlfriend.

 
Fresh from the greenhouses of Herbology, Annie MacKenzie also stopped short briefly as she realised who stood in front of her. These were moments neither of them had quite overcome, usually being followed by one or the other breaking eye-contact and rushing off muttering something about being late for class. But this time, inexplicably, she didn’t, and Tobias had been taken too unawares by her presence to do anything but stand and gawp a little.

 
Annie smiled. “Hey, Toby,” she said softly – then, as if there was nothing strange about any of this, as if it were the most normal thing in the world for the two to exchange such basic pleasantries, sauntered into the Great Hall. Jennifer Riley, taking up the rear of the group, gave him a grin and a nod before she followed.

 
Gabriel and Tobias stared after them in complete confusion for several long moments, before the push of other students began to shepherd them into the Hall anyway, and they made their way in stunned silence towards the Slytherin table, and where Tanith and Cal sat.

 
“Mate… I told you so,” Gabriel declared triumphantly after he had found his voice, about halfway there.

 
“That was just… well, we had to start behaving civilly towards each other sooner or later,” Tobias said stumblingly. “It could be because of anything.”

 
“Come on! Riley winked at you!”


“She absolutely did not wink at me, she smiled at me, and there’s a difference, especially if you consider the fact that we now essentially work together she’s going to become a bit more polite or her head’s going to explode…”

 
“…much like yours looks like it’s about to.” They looked down to see they’d already reached their friends at the table, with Tanith gazing up at them with an expression of mild curiosity and amusement. “What’s up?”

 
“Oh, the usual,” Gabriel declared cheerfully before Tobias could speak, perching on the bench. “Arithmancy blows, Vector’s nuts, Tobias is getting attention from the ladies.” He waggled his eyebrows.

 
Cal, who had been just stirring his stew without much enthusiasm, did lift his eyes at this – but with his attention shifting very suddenly towards Tanith, expression tentative. “Danger, Will Robinson!” he murmured softly, giving a brief, unenthusiastic wave of his hands from side to side before returning to his lunch.

 
This warning went completely unheeded by the three teenagers not particularly familiar with Muggle pop culture, augmented by Cal’s strange recent behaviour. So it was only when Tanith arched an eyebrow and looked questioningly, piercingly at Gabriel. “‘The ladies’, Doyle?” she repeated, in a voice that wouldn’t melt ice-cream.

 
It was now that Gabriel recognised his mistake, though he was completely alone with Cal focusing entirely on his stew and Tobias by now – either oblivious or trying to escape the situation, most likely the former – polishing his Head Boy badge with an air of consternation. “We just ran into Riley and her cronies outside the Hall, including one Annie MacKenzie. They were polite to us – correction, they were polite to Tobias, including MacKenzie herself. Completely out of the blue.”

 
It was likely to be Gabriel’s forlorn hope that he could redirect any ire of Tanith’s towards the Gryffindors, thus avoiding any small potential explosion. And it was likely that this would have worked, too, had it not been for Tobias lifting his head and rejoining the conversation at that moment, proving his ignorance and prompting a snort from Cal.

 
“Gabriel has this theory that the Head Boy spot has made me a… more attractive prospect about the school. Personally, I can’t see it,” he said, sighing and shaking his head.

 
Tanith’s raised eyebrow was turned towards him, though Tobias didn’t seem any more clued in, and Gabriel thankfully escaped the conversation by reaching out to claim lunch quickly and hungrily. “No? They weren’t all that polite, then?”

 
“It was a smile and a nod. And a ‘hello’. And most certainly not a wink.” Tobias glared at Gabriel, who shrank away a little and began to dip bread into his stew without looking up in a desperate hope he would be ignored if he didn’t respond.

 
“There was a wink, huh?” A small note of amusement was injected into Tanith’s voice but, real or affected, it wasn’t defrosting anything.

 
“That was just Riley,” Tobias looked dimly thoughtful as he reached out for some bread.


If Tanith’s eyebrow could have gone up any more, it would have been in her hairline. “Riley, huh?” The ‘huh’ was beginning to sound more and more like the bleep sound made by a mine upon arming.


“Apparently, at least. I mean, I didn’t see it, but Gabe said he…”


“No, no, just a trick of the light. I must have imagined it. Didn’t happen. She bewitched me. You can’t prove anything,” Gabriel bit back in something of a mad babble, still not looking up and shoving bread into his mouth.

 
“So it’s just MacKenzie then. I guess that’s nothing.” Tanith appeared to think about this for a moment, stirring her stew thoughtfully. “At least you two are on civil terms again. I mean, maybe now you can be brewing buddies in Potions again, and…”

 
“Oh, for the love of Jesus sodding Christ…” Cal’s large hands slammed down on the table, loud and hard enough to make the three of them jump, especially Gabriel, and for some of the second-years seated nearby look at them in surprise before rapidly regaining interest in their lunch.

 
“Enough of this passive-aggressive bullshit already, Tanith. Really. I mean… really.” He stood up, grabbing another crust of bread and taking a large bite. “And enough of your stupid obliviousness crap, Toby. Either get a clue or stop being an arsehole. I’m done with this fuckwittage until you two grow up…” Then, with no further announcements than that, he turned on his heel and stormed out the Great Hall.

 
The other three stared after him for a few long moments, before Gabriel hurriedly swallowed down the rest of his stew. “You know… I’m going to go check up on him, see if he’s okay…” he said quickly after glancing between the rather stunned Tobias and Tanith and bolting for the exit. Once out the doors, unseen by the other two, he went the complete opposite way to that Cal had gone at a rapid pace.

 
“Well…” Tanith paused, blinking, before she turned back to Tobias. “He’s been in a funny mood all week.”

 
Tobias nodded very slowly. “Yeah. He’s just been a bit crazy.”


“After all, it’s not like there’s anything… I mean, it’s not as if…” Tanith’s voice trailed off, and she shook her head, frowning a little before she pinched the bridge of her nose. “Hey, just typical? I’m not actually hungry. I think I’m going to go for a walk. In fact, you know, I think I left something down at the Herbology greenhouses… I should go get that…”

 
Tobias half-rose as she got to her feet, looking rather confused. “Do you want some company? I mean…”

 
“No… you know what? I think I’ll be fine.” Tanith nodded firmly. “Just enjoy your lunch, Grey. I’ll see you in Transfiguration this afternoon.” Then she, in the wake of Cal and Gabriel before her, headed for the door, picking the direction that would indeed take her out of the grounds.

 
Leaving Tobias on his own at lunch, and completely, utterly – despite whatever Cal had said – confused. So he did about all he could do, which was finish his stew up calmly, but swiftly, and then decide it would probably be best to spend the rest of the lunch in the nice, quiet, comparatively safe library.

 
He was halfway down the corridor away from the Great Hall before a familiar, but nevertheless unexpected voice echoed down after him. “Tobias! Hey, Toby, wait a minute!”

 
He turned back to see Annie trotting up to him, wearing a bright but slightly uncertain smile. “Thanks… sorry, you look like you’re a man on a mission, but it looks like the Three Stooges abandoned you, so…”

 
‘The Three Stooges’. It was the nickname she’d used for Tanith, Cal and Gabriel while they’d been going out, but he’d never really dared ask her exactly what bit of Muggle lore it was a reference to. He’d once used the term in front of Cal to describe Pucey, Montague and Bletchley, and had just got a confused look in response.

 
“Uh… yeah, they had things to do,” Tobias said, very hesitantly. “I was just heading up to the library, get some extra Transfiguration reading done for this afternoon…”

 
“Oh really? I was thinking about doing that. Mind if I tag along? I know a short-cut to the library from here…” Without waiting for a response, and sounding a little hyped up, as if she’d spent some time talking herself into this course of action, Annie reached out to grab him by the sleeve and pulled him down a different corridor-way he’d never before considered using to head to the library.

 
“Uh… sure,” was all Tobias was about to say, before allowing her to lead him down a veritable maze of turns and twists and stairs. He knew Hogwarts rather well at this point, had as a prefect been set to patrol even some of the more obscure corners of the castle to ensure no wayward students poked their noses where they weren’t supposed to, and even he was unfamiliar with the route that Annie seemed to be dragging him along.

 
Then she led him through a oaken door that led to a narrow flight of wooden spiral stairs that he knew now would take them out to a corridor which would lead them to the library from the opposite direction from usual. And then, taking the front, halfway up the stairs and with the door out in sight, Annie… stopped.

 
“Wait a moment,” she said, glancing about a little frantically. “This might be the wrong way.”

 
Tobias frowned. “No, it’s fine. Just through that door, hang a left, then we’re at the…”

 
“No, no, I’m not so sure.” She spoke quickly, sharply, interrupting him before he could finish trying to reassure her. “Give me a second Toby. Let me just think about this… get my bearings…”

 
He frowned again. “But it’s just up…” Then his voice trailed off as he saw the slight furrowing of her brow he knew meant she was fighting some inner conflict, and the slight glint in her eye as she looked at him then glanced away quickly.

 
Tobias looked down at the Head Boy’s badge pinned to the lapel of his robe. In the gloom of this stairway it shone brightly, reflecting the narrow beam of sunlight creeping through the murky windows by the walls. Then, keeping one eye on Annie, who by now was looking a little distracted, he unpinned the badge and pulled his hand away from his body.

 
Annie frowned again, then shook her head as if to clear it. “No, no, you’re right. I’m just being silly. It’s this way,” she decided at last, visibly slumping a little with an air of defeat before turning away to ascend the stairs again.

 
Letting out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, Tobias squinted suspiciously at the badge in his hand, then lifted it to his lapel again to pin it back on.

 
Then Annie stopped again. “Oh, screw it,” she declared at last, before whirling around to face him, grabbing him by the front of his robes, and kissing him before he could even react. The badge dropped from his hand in pure surprise and went bouncing down the stairway, but despite the brief test of before, despite Gabriel’s theory, that didn’t stop her as she stepped in closer, the usual height difference between them nullified by the stairs, deepening the kiss.

 
And before he could really react, before he could decide if he should pull away or kiss her back or perhaps pass out to save himself the choice, she pulled away. Her cheeks were flushed, her breathing deep, and she looked absolutely, utterly stunned.

 
“Well, bugger,” was all she said, before pushing past him and heading back down the stairs the way they’d came at high speed, clattering out the doorway before he could regain his senses enough to say anything.


Tobias stood in stunned silence for several long seconds, blinking occasionally. Then he slowly began to descend the stairs, reaching down at the bottom to retrieve his fallen Head Boy badge. He turned it over in his hands a few times, frowning with consternation, then polished it on his sleeve and pinned it back onto his robe before consulting his watch. He had about ten minutes left before Transfiguration class. This hadn’t been any kind of short-cut at all, really.
 

“Well,” he stated to nobody in particular, wiping his mouth in the chance that he had been left with any traces of incriminating lipstick. “That wasn’t weird at all.”

 

* * * * *
 

 
“What the hell, Brynmor? What the helling hell?” Tanith placed her hands firmly on her hips as she looked down at her friend, who was lounging in the sun out by the lake, back against one of the large boulders, reading a book.

 
Cal looked up lazily, raising an eyebrow in what could have easily been considered an outright mockery of her usual accusatory expression. “I’m not really here to be your chew-toy, Tan, so if you’ve got something to say…”

 
“Passive aggressive? I’ll give you passive aggressive… what’s the matter with you?” she exclaimed at last, staring at him in complete confusion and not without a good dose of genuine anger.

 
He let out a sigh, lowering the book and resting it in his lap. She could just about make out the battered title on the front cover, The Rise and Fall of Dark Magic, a historical tome she was confident would probably send her to sleep. Her interest was in the current threats, not those long gone.

 
“My problem,” Cal said, picking each word out very carefully and subsequently not really sounding like himself, “is that I have become sick of your constant pretence that you have absolutely no problem with Tobias or Annie or anything within a ten mile radius of that issue, not least of all because you’re really, really bad at said pretence.”

 
Tanith’s lip curled a little. “So I made a few digs. I never pretended to like any of the Gryffindors or…”

 
“My problem is also that I’m sick of Tobias sitting there and being entirely ignorant. Either he’s an idiot who needs to see what’s in front of him, or he’s an arse who’s sticking his head in the sand and just helping the situation get worse.” Cal rubbed his chin, assuming a mock-stance of someone in deep thought, though it sounded like he couldn’t wait to get these issues off his chest. “As for Gabriel, I’m sick that he’s buying into this crap. You two are so bad that you have Gabriel Doyle, mister cool, cringing around you when you get started in case you do something painful or embarrassing.”

 
She folded her arms across her chest. “So bitching at us and storming off is going to fix all of these so-called wrongs?”

 
“No, but it means I don’t have to listen to it.” Cal lifted his book back up, settling down a little more on the grass in the sunlight of the dying summer, and returned his attention to his reading.

 
But Tanith wouldn’t be beaten by this, flopping down onto the grass next to him, crossing her legs and fixing him with her gaze uncompromisingly. “Cal… what’s been bugging you lately?”

 
“Me? I’m fine,” he grunted.

 
“Now you’re the one with the bad pretences,” she pointed out. “Ever since the year started you’ve been acting really… off.”

 
He lowered the book slightly, raising an eyebrow and staring off into the distance, watching the sunlight dancing off the waves of the lake. “Since the year started? Really?”

 
“You’ve hardly been excited about being back on the Quidditch team, you picked a fight with Grey right after he made Head Boy, you’ve been stomping and sulking and acting like something crawled up your arse and died.” Tanith narrowed her eyes, watching his face for any flicker of a hint if he wasn’t going to voice his problems. She’d always fancied herself a fair reader of people, and the books she’d been given by Van Roden included tips on useful skills such as reading body language. Applying that theory to the practical was something she hadn’t yet perfected, however.

 
“Oh, that might well be possible.” Cal glanced sideways at her, one eyebrow raising. “But what makes you think this has only been since the beginning of the year?”

 
A small, sinking realisation began to tighten in Tanith’s gut as she cast her mind back to the last time, really the last time she’d seen him acting like himself, cheerful and carefree and mocking them out of their screw-ups instead of shouting at them.

 
Oh, I’ve been a wild rover for many a year…

 
Tanith took a deep, shuddering breath. “Cal… what happened to you that night in Derbyshire?”

 
It was the wrong answer – or, rather, it was exactly the right answer, as he slammed his book shut and leapt to his feet, glaring down at her. She, too, scrambled upright, though it did the height difference little good. She was still rather small, still rather slightly built, and he was as broad and tall as he’d ever been.

 
Now you ask. When I become a problem for you. How typical,” Cal spat, before whirling on his heel and storming back off in the direction of the castle.

 
“Cal… wait, Cal!” Tanith trotted after him, having to break into a jog to keep up with the strides of his long legs.

 
He did pause, only for a moment, and again to fix her with that angry glare. “I know you and Tobias met my father, Tanith. I’m not an idiot. And I love it when people keep secrets judged to be for my own good.”

 
That did stop her dead, staring at him with shock and guilt – and then staring at the back of him with shock and guilt as he turned away again to make his slightly slower but no less angry way back towards the castle, and towards the hum and throb of life that was Hogwarts School at the beginning of afternoon lessons.

Chapter 8: The Space Between
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Chapter 7: The Space Between



 

“So is this… supposed to be… a kill… or cure… kind of thing?” Ariane Drake puffed as she struggled to keep pace with Tanith on the jogging route they were taking along the path around the lake, the setting sun hanging low in the sky and casting long shadows through the trees. Some paces behind them, Melanie Larkin was doing distinctly worse, lagging behind, and overall the two were clearly demonstrating they had little to no experience or aptitude for exercise of this kind.

 

Not that Tanith changed her pace as she pounded on ahead, or even demonstrated that she was particularly tired from the exertion. She was already slowing down for the other Slytherin girls, already somewhat behind on schedule for the route because they’d insisted on coming along, and she’d be damned if she made any more allowances.

 

“Cole… come on… let’s have a break. Just five minutes,” Ariane gasped, and finally Tanith slowed to a halt with an irritated sigh.

 

“Okay, but seriously, if you two want to start getting exercise, then you’re going to have to take it seriously,” she said, breathing harder than she’d thought she needed to as her two dormmates flopped gratefully onto a fallen log, gasping for air. “You’re going to have to have a schedule, stick to it, work on it…”

 

She stopped as she saw Ariane and Melanie exchanging eye-rolls. “What? I’m not joking here. I need to do this if my application after the winter’s going to be accepted by the Aurors. I need to have a high level of physical fitness just to get through the first trials. If this is all a bit of fun for the two of you, then can you kindly do it…”

 

“Oh, unclench, Tanith. Merlin’s beard, you’d have thought you’d be glad for some company on this godawful daily routine,” Ariane retorted wearily, massaging aching legs. “You know, considering none of your troupe of boys are interested in joining in.”

 

Tanith was just trying to figure out if that was meant to be a gibe when Melanie lifted her head, expression all curiosity and with an innocence that she wasn’t for a second convinced by – and indeed, just made her more paranoid. “Speaking of your little cabal, what was with the explosion at lunch the other day?”

 

Now she knew what this was. This was all a carefully calculated effort by the other two Slytherin girls to get her to share the gossip. After all, Cal was still sulking, and Gabriel and Tobias were acting – with great conviction – as if absolutely nothing had happened. So, as ever, they turned to her. Despite sharing a dorm for six years, they’d never really known how to approach her.

 

There were several specific ways to handle this. One was to be evasive, which was never really very useful, as it just made them more persistent and, thus, more annoying. There had never been a pair of more effective, perpetual gossips within all of Slytherin House than Ariane and Melanie, who had honed their skills to razor-edge precision, and if she was vague, they’d just know she was hiding something and thus become more incensed. Telling them to sod off and mind their own business would yield much the same result, though would admittedly be faster and more satisfying in the short-term.

 

That left the only option as the most dangerous of territories, that being the truth. Of course, there were many kinds of truth, and most of them had nothing to do with honesty.

 

“Just boys being boys.” She gave a deep, calculated sigh, making sure to include a slight drop of her gaze, a slight tilt of the head, a slight wistful tone. “Brynmor’s got his knickers in a twist over something. Doyle’s been imagining things from this headache of his. Grey’s still got his head in the clouds over the Head Boy badge. Brynmor finally snapped and threw a hissyfit at them.”

 

Her dormmates exchanged glances, Ariane raising an eyebrow as Melanie rolled her eyes. For a second Tanith could have sworn she could see the invisible game of rock, paper, scissors going on between them, and she sighed inwardly as she realised that they weren’t buying it.

 

It had taken some time, but she had eventually learnt how to read the two of them – no mean feat when considering this was a pair of girls who lived together very closely, and yet were so very different. Where Ariane was tall and blonde, aristocratic and graceful, Melanie was shorter, stockier – once considered podgy, though a greater care for her appearance in her teenaged years now saw her curved rather than rotund – straightforward and ‘handsome’ than, perhaps, ‘pretty’. Ariane liked colours such as bright blues and shining emerald; Melanie liked black makeup and deep purples. And yet the two Slytherin girls of their year who inhabited the opposite extremes had joined forces, leaving Tanith alone except for boys.

 

Oh, yes, the boys. Those her companions were now set on interrogating her about, and they didn’t seem liable to take ‘no’ for an answer.

 

“Really?” Ariane didn’t sound in the slightest bit convinced. “Because rumour has it there was a little scene between Tobias and MacKenzie just seconds before.”

 

“And by scene,” Melanie interjected, “we mean that the two of them were in the same space at the same time and nothing happened.”

 

“No cold fish comments from Tobias.”

 

“No snide accusations from MacKenzie.”

 

“No glaring daggers from Riley.”

 

“No blatant insults from Gabriel.”

 

“Yes, yes, I get the picture. Can you stop that? It’s creepy.” Tanith pinched the bridge of her nose. Perhaps the next best application of the truth would be to throw them the bare essentials very quickly and hope they would be satisfied, then change the subject while they were still digesting superficialities. “So, yes. Doyle was convinced that MacKenzie – and even Riley – was flirting with Grey outside the Hall. Grey was being his usual oblivious self. Brynmor got pissy and shouted at them before storming off.” Again, no lies.

 

“And what were you doing?” Ariane asked casually.

 

“Sitting there like a delicate flower and not getting involved?” Melanie grinned, not even trying to pretend innocence in the interrogation at this point.

 

Tanith glared at them both again. “What makes you think I would have any kind of reason to get involved in such a ridiculous discussion?”

 

Ariane pretended to think about this for a moment. “Oh, I don’t know… perhaps the fact that when MacKenzie dumped Tobias you stood in the middle of our dormitory and danced?”

 

A slightly defeated silence met her words as Tanith slumped her shoulders. “That was six months ago,” was all she managed to say eventually, weakly.

 

“And in that time has Tobias really shown any interest in anyone else – or has anyone else shown interest in him?” Ariane spoke slowly, gently, making Tanith increasingly suspicious.

 

“No,” she said slowly, narrowing her eyes a little.

 

“Of course not.” Ariane gave a small smile that would have made the Mona Lisa proud were it not a painting and had any of the girls actually heard of it. “So it’s a bit of a shock to the system when randomly girls start flirting with him…”

 

“After all,” Melanie continued cheerfully, “it’s not like your feelings for Tobias are any sort of a secret –”

 

Tanith straightened up, hands on her hips. “I do not have any feelings for Grey. I rejected him, remember?” she snapped quickly, brusquely, by now glaring death at Melanie.

 

Melanie opened her mouth with a slight expression of irritation on her face that suggested she was about to challenge that claim, but remained silent as Ariane lifted a hand, expression calm, smile intact, and there was a pause.

 

“Of course you did,” Ariane said in the same irritatingly level tone. “We know that. Of course that’s not what Mel means. She just misspoke.” The two friends exchanged a glance, Melanie barely falling short of rolling her eyes, but seeming to restrain herself nevertheless.

 

“It’s not that you have any actual romantic interest in Tobias Grey,” Ariane went on, “it’s more that you have a certain sense – no, right – of… possessiveness towards him. He’s one of your boys, one of your property.”

 

There was a brief look on Melanie’s face as if a light bulb had just lit up before she nodded firmly. “It’d be the same with Cal or Gabriel, if it came out of left field.”

 

Tanith continued to look suspicious, but leaned against the tree opposite them, arms folded across her chest and listening intently. “I guess so. Yeah. And MacKenzie’s bad news – any Gryffindor is bad news.”

 

“Absolutely,” Ariane agreed soothingly. “You’re just trying to look out for him. And all the boys. But they don’t recognise that.”

 

“You’ve grown… soft, Tanith,” Melanie began carefully. At her housemate’s sharp look, she pressed on swiftly to cut off the anger. “With people. You’ve spent almost too much time with boys. Boys are simple, boys are straightforward. Not spending enough time with girls is going to dull your senses. You’re losing your edge.”

 

“Though it’ll take an apocalypse before they run rings around you, my dear,” Ariane giggled, and it was only the fact that Ariane called most people ‘my dear’ when in a good mood that Tanith didn’t feel outright patronised. The deep suspicion remained, however – albeit slightly quashed by the sense the two were talking.

 

“But the fact remains that you are rusty, and they are turning from boys… into men,” Melanie piped up.

 

“An altogether more sophisticated – though still comparatively basic – form of life. I would theorise that this is what’s beginning to happen with Cal. However, just as you are somewhat dulled by only spending your time with boys, they are somewhat dulled by not really testing themselves against women like yourself. And whilst they are sufficiently sharpened against you, there is the whole rest of the world out there.”

 

Tanith leaned forwards a little, one eyebrow slightly raised. “You’re telling me to… share, aren’t you,” she observed coolly.

 

“If I were in this for their good, I would be,” Ariane confirmed. “And I would be if I needed to split up your super-happy-fun-club for me to get my hands on one of your boys. But neither am I feeling benevolent towards them, nor do I need any help if I want to claim Gabriel.”

 

“‘Claim’?” Tanith chuckled dryly. “You’re so affectionate, Drake.”

 

Ariane tossed her hair uncaringly. “I’m not saying I want to or that I will. More that, if I wanted one of your little pack, it would be Doyle. He, at least, has some class beyond a nerd or a Quidditch player.”

 

“You went out with Miles for almost a year.”

 

“I was a girl then. Now I’m a woman.”

 

As we were saying,” Melanie said firmly, glaring a little at Ariane. “We’re not suggesting the four of you… see other people. More that you see other people. Like us. Like other women. Like boys who have already made the transition into men.”

 

Tanith snorted. “You mean find a boyfriend that isn’t Grey, Brynmor, or Doyle.”

 

“We mean break out of that little circle and see the wider world, my dear,” Ariane said simply, shrugging.

 

“Which, aside from you two, is frighteningly limited, as it leads me to the younger pupils who still think dungbombs are the height of comedy, idiots in other Houses, or The Amazing Moron Twins.” Tanith shook her head, by now beginning to idly pick at the bark on the tree which was providing her leaning post.

 

Ariane and Melanie exchanged looks. Tanith wondered if they had managed to perfect the magical art of actually combining their minds into one single Hive Brain. If, that was, there were in fact two brains between them, rather than just a time-share going on over the single mind, as she had long suspected. “There’s always… Miles,” Melanie said slowly.

 

Again, Tanith narrowed her eyes. “What about Miles,” she said, no inflection of curiosity making it to her voice through the sheer suspicion.

 

“He’s… nice,” Ariane tried.

 

“He’s a pillock.”

 

“No more than any other man out there. And he is a man.” There was a slight smile on Ariane’s face making it absolutely clear to Tanith that she did not want to know how her classmate had got her hands, so to speak, on this information.

 

Tanith straightened up. “Let me see if I’m getting this right,” she began slowly. “You insisted on joining me on one of my daily jogs not because you want to begin to try and get fit, but because you want me to start going out with Miles Bletchley as a learning experience.”

 

Ariane said “Of course not!” at about the same time Melanie shrugged and responded “More or less.” The two looked at each other again, but more sharply this time, with signs the Hive Brain was imploding.

 

“Look,” Melanie continued, for once winning the coin toss of who got to use the brain cells for this minute, “we know that you don’t fancy Tobias. It’s obvious to anyone who knows what they’re talking about.” She rubbed her hands together briskly as she spoke, shifting somewhat. “But the rest of the school don’t necessarily. Up to and including your coterie. And do you really want to start having wars of possession with MacKenzie and Riley and anyone else who recognises Tobias’ current social currency value?”

 

“Not to mention embarrassing conversations with Brynmor where he tries to ‘advise’ you on how to deal with your so-called ‘feelings’ for Tobias?” Ariane made little finger-quotes in the air as she spoke, only threatening to incense Tanith further. “Or the entirely likely possibility that your group implodes from internal jealousies? You are the most regular fixture on their feminine schedule, after all.”

 

It was rather telling that the first thought which struck Tanith on the notion of connecting her to romance and either Cal or Gabriel resulted in a very definite reaction that could be summed up with ‘eww’. She made a face. “I guess not,” she admitted grudgingly.

 

“We’re certainly not saying go throw yourself at Miles. And we’re only really saying Miles because he’s the most likely candidate. There may be a perfectly sensible Ravenclaw or two who could be worth chatting with. And even if you don’t actually wish to get involved with them, it could be worth it to keep up with appearances,” Melanie said, picking her words with the same caution and care that one embraced when stepping through a minefield.

 

“We’re just saying that it might help, publicly and personally, if you got friendly with… other boys. Men. Whatever.” Ariane shrugged.

 

“Doesn’t have to be a romance of the ages,” Melanie said with a slight smile. “Doesn’t even have to be romance. Just… interest.”

 

“So nobody thinks you’re still hung up – I mean, hung up at all over Tobias,” Ariane stammered briefly.

 

Amazingly, Tanith missed the stumble, lost in her genuine consideration of the suggestion. “No wars with Gryffindors where I didn’t pick the battlefield,” she said slowly.

 

“Or anyone else who shows an interest in Tobias,” Melanie pointed out. “You could get some rather unexpected enemies, and right now, you need to know exactly who’s on your side.”

 

There was a brief pause as the memory of her father ranting at her about how she couldn’t trust anyone in her house was suddenly brought flashing up to the forefront of her mind, and Tanith stopped to sweep more suspicious, beady glances over the other two. “…right,” she said simply.

 

“No conflicts from your little friends. You might even have some fun along the way. Meet… new people,” Ariane said, with perhaps too much of an emphasis on a cheerful tone of voice. “Reinforce contact with… ‘old’ people.”

 

Tanith nodded briskly – a little too briskly, if she was assessing her own performance, but the other two mostly looked so thrilled she’d actually listened to them that they didn’t seem to notice. “I think you’re… right,” she said quickly. “I have become a little stuck in my ways.”

 

“Never hurts to try new things,” Melanie said, waggling a finger and nodding.

 

“Of course not,” Tanith agreed, just stopping herself from mimicking Ariane as she spoke. Then she reached down to pull out her pocket watch and flip it open. “However… you know, this is fun, but we’ve been stopped more than five minutes here… and I’m going to be late for the prefect meeting if I don’t head back now. You two had better finish the run, you hear me?”

 

Not even bothering to try to look for a lie in the cheerful chirping of “We will!” in chorus she got in response, Tanith turned and began to jog very quickly back up the path the way she’d come. A new thought had occurred to her in the conversation, a new advantage of their suggestion that the two girls couldn’t possibly have considered.

 

However, she had to figure out if she herself was crazy for even thinking about it. For her father had told her not to trust anyone else in Hogwarts who had the slightest possible connection to Death Eaters, which essentially left her with Tobias to trust, considering how everyone else either had familial connections to You-Know-Who’s movement or were best bosom pals with someone who did. Which made Tobias moderately more suspect with his connections to Cal, though she’d seen for herself how little love he held for Death Eaters.

 

Her father had also pointed out that training to be an Auror was the equivalent of standing in the middle of a Keeper’s hoop for anyone who would wish the establishment ill. And Death Eaters certainly came under the ‘wishing ill’ category.

 

So perhaps it wouldn’t do to remain so… exclusive about her friendship with publicly-defending-Muggle-borns Tobias Grey, or denounced-his-Death-Eater-father Cal Brynmor, or… well, Doyle was fine, perhaps, because she was just as clueless as anyone else on where he stood about… anything, quite frankly. And being closer friends with Ariane Drake, whose father Bacchus had reputedly only gone free after the First War by pleading Imperius, or the old and suspicious Montagues might not hurt.

 

Tanith paused for breath as she reached the lawn leading up to the main entrance back into the castle, eyes instinctively flickering up to the darkening evening sky. It had been several days since she’d sent an owl to Altair, finally asking him for an explanation of what was going on with him and her father. Asking him why he’d attacked a Death Eater (not to mention come off rather well of the whole affair) and why said Death Eater had suggested her father had been a spy during the war. Her clash with Cal the other day had only made it clear that, try to pretend the entire incident as she might, it wasn’t going to go away.

 

It was possible her father hadn’t been completely crazy in his paranoia. It was possible he knew a lot. It was possible that the squib who had allegedly been hired by her family to give the two daughters a classical education had, perhaps, a slightly broader job description. She’d never before wondered why Altair Ritter had remained in her father’s employ once both she and her sister were at Hogwarts.

 

For someone fancying herself to be a potential Auror, Tanith had, she reflected, been incredibly obtuse and closed-minded.

 

But there was nothing more to be done on the matter until she had answers from Altair – whatever his response was would dictate her next move. If he was open, she would know more; if he became evasive, she would know more, and she didn’t want to begin digging unless she knew what flavour of dangerous secrets she was beginning to pester. And now the evening sky was empty, no late birds arriving bearing letters of enlightenment, and with a sigh Tanith pressed on, heading into the castle.

 

The prefects’ meeting room was a fairly large chamber in the east tower, designed when these select pupils were meant to be paragons of justice in a lawless Hogwarts, or something along those lines. The walls bore portraits of every Head Boy and Head Girl Hogwarts had ever had, by now crammed in at every square inch. Even when one thought there was no more space for another picture, lo and behold, the following year there it would be, locked in a gap one had never before noticed. Even as Tanith padded into the mostly-empty room she could see Tobias’ picture now on the far wall, in place of pride as befitting an incumbent, nervously nudging his glasses up his nose.

 

The real Tobias was down at the end of the room, where the prefects usually were. The main bulk of the chamber was filled with a long table with more than the necessary twenty-four chairs, but it had never been used in any of her time as a prefect. Instead, everyone tended to just lounge on the comfortable chairs at one end, relaxed and cheerful instead of stiff and formal.

 

She took a step in his direction unthinkingly, right before the conversation of several minutes earlier rose, unbidden, to the front of her mind. Here, in the place it was quickest to send rumours and opinions across all years and houses save perhaps the Great Hall itself, was the best place to start to hint that maybe, just maybe, she wasn't joined at the hip with the open-minded, Muggle-born embracing Head Boy.

 

She'd win no friends in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw for it, most likely, but she neither cared much for their opinions, nor feared them stabbing her in her sleep, metaphorically or otherwise.

 

But the hesitation helped, at least, for it made her take a few more seconds to squint at Tobias and realise he was, in fact, already talking to someone, and she gave a small inward sigh as she saw who it was. Tobias was well known for being happy to talk the ears off some people on certain subjects. Outside of their immediate circle, it tended to be on academia, one passion which was barely shared by her, Cal, or Gabriel. So whenever he found a like minded academic - or swot, depending on who you were talking to - he tended to cling to them and talk until the cows came home. Often, they would talk back.

 

None quite matched him blow-for-blow with outright enthusiasm and downright obsession so much as Hermione Granger of Gryffindor.

 

They had little to do with each other outside of prefect duties, being of different houses and different years, but if stuck in the same place at the same time with no outside distractions, magical theory would fly thick and thin and anyone and everyone else would struggle to stay awake.

 

It was rather ironic, really, that Tobias’ opinion of her best friend the famed Potter was that he was ‘a little suck-up who got lucky and never had to work for his achievements’. Tanith rather assumed they just didn't talk about it when they were geeking out at each other.

 

She headed straight past them, close enough to hear the snippets of an argument – or what they might label as an ‘academic debate’ about something-or-other in Arithmancy – and made a bee-line for the table by the wall bearing empty mugs, pots of tea, and enough biscuits to feed the school, let alone the two-dozen prefects. A couple of Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs were lingering around, including, on his own and looking deeply bored, Ron Weasley, occasionally casting an irritated-looking glance back at his partner-in-prefecting and Tobias.

 

Tanith nodded curtly to him – hardly rudely, but not forcing false enthusiasm. “Weasley.” She reached for the teapot and poured herself a steaming mug.

 

He gave her a briefly curious and assessing look, and she realised she probably looked something of a state still in her jogging gear. Not that she cared much. Then Weasley shrugged, and gave a small sigh. “Just over five minutes now,” he said vaguely.

 

She knew he was referring to how long Granger and Tobias had been talking; it was about the only point of contact she had with Weasley, this long-suffering tolerance of how their respective friends got on. Not to mention the fact that, without them, the two would probably be at each other's throats on sheer principle.

 

Which was probably healthier and more helpful than the sole other, and first point of contact the two had shared; that being Tanith sitting behind him in prefect meetings the previous year and singing ‘Weasley is our King’ quiet enough that only he could hear it, seeing how long it would take before he snapped. He hadn't, and had been rather good at outright ignoring her – so through respect for his resilience and, more importantly, a loss of interest, she had stopped by halfway through second term.

 

“Five minutes and they haven't even solved world hunger yet?” Tanith raised an eyebrow, sipping her tea. “They must be slacking.”

 

“She’ll fix it before he does,” Weasley replied, with a tone that sounded both mournful and, under the surface, fiercely proud. It was a tone Tanith knew well, that which said she was perfectly allowed to mock Tobias, but nobody else was.

 

What is this, she wondered. My geek's better than your geek? I must be going mad.

 

Fortunately, she was saved from the perils of the internal strife by the door swinging open again, and Malfoy walking in with Parkinson. Yates was already here; when Talley arrived, then Slytherin would be at full house, so to speak.

 

Malfoy looked tired and worn, and had generally appeared rather sickly for most of the time he'd been back at school. But in public there was a certain face he wore compared to quiet moments in the common room, and he bore that face.

 

And Tanith knew there was nobody better than him to be friendly with if she wanted to suggest she was ‘on side’. She'd done it most of her life, especially her school life, and even though everyone, including probably Malfoy, knew she couldn't stand the little twerp they nevertheless respected the appearance. And it was one worth maintaining.

 

Didn't mean she would like it, though, and she drained her hot tea quickly. “Ugh. Slime alert,” she muttered under her breath as Malfoy sauntered towards the gathered prefects, before setting her mug down and heading in his direction. Weasley gave a short snort of amusement as she swept past, and Tanith fought back the scowl that threatened. She hadn't meant to be heard. That was something to keep track of.

 

“Draco!” she greeted Malfoy with an air of courtesy that seemed almost genuine, and there was no flicker from him or Parkinson to suggest she'd laid it on too thick. Plenty of flinching from everyone else in the room, mind, but that was normal when Slytherins gathered.

 

“Cole.” He nodded briefly at her – then took a second look and arched an eyebrow. “You look terrible.”

 

Tanith paused, genuinely stunned that he had the gall to say this in public, especially as it was rather obvious that she'd just been exercising rather than being messy in the common room or any such behaviour. Still, she forced a smile – tight, and vicious. “I didn't really think the company here was going to be worth making an effort over,” she stated, allowing her voice to carry and waving a hand disparagingly at the rest of the room.

 

Parkinson swept forwards to take her by the arm, one of those girlish gestures that had always set Tanith's teeth on edge. “But, sweetie, it doesn't do to drop to the level of plebeians, even if they're not worth the effort. You’re worth the effort.”

 

Tanith didn't think anyone had ever called her ‘sweetie’, and it wasn't a trend she particularly wanted to see continue. “I suppose you're right, Pansy”" she said, imagining throttling the girl with her own plait. Self-empowerment lessons from Pansy Parkinson. Could she sink any lower? “I should make the time.”

 

“We have to keep up appearances,” Malfoy said graciously, sauntering past her and into the centre of the room, where he claimed one of the bigger armchairs to lounge on lazily.

 

More than you know, you little twerp.

 

“Well?” Malfoy called out, glaring at Tobias and completely ignoring Granger or the fact he was interrupting a conversation. “Are we going to start?”

 

Tobias looked up, seemingly jerked out of an academic reverie and rather oblivious to his surroundings. The expression darkened rapidly when he realised who he was talking to, however. “We don't work to your schedule alone, Malfoy,” he pointed out. “And Riley's not even here yet.”

 

“So we're waiting on a late Gryffindor?”

 

“You can take that up,” an imperious and irritable voice sounded from the doorway as the aforementioned Jennifer Riley, with impeccable timing, stalked in, “with your own beloved Professor Snape. Who decided to keep us in detention because we didn't perfect a physical protection spell to his liking.” Behind her walked Everard, looking rather bedraggled, tired, and even bruised.

 

Tanith winced a little. There were two kinds of protection spells, and it was almost impossible to keep them both up at the same time. The standard ‘Protego’ was what one called upon if an enemy was trying to stun you with a spell. The ‘Contego spell, on the other hand, was best employed if someone was using a spell to hurl that rock over there at you. Or if they were using their fists to hurl that rock at you. Or hurling their fists at you. It was very trial and error, for where magic was a simple contest of willpower, of being stronger than the opponent, the physical protection was very technical, almost scientific to get right. Snape had been throwing it at all NEWT classes, and from the marks on Everard, it seemed he'd been a guinea pig.

 

“If you're too rubbish to be let out of class on time, then I don't see why we should have to wait around for you,” Tanith found herself saying, assuming the most imperious and smug smirk she could summon – which was not unimpressive.

 

Riley only just seemed to have noticed her presence as she made her way to the front, next to Tobias, and seemed rather bored by the comment. “Oh, hello, Cole. So you’re set to ‘bitch’ today, are you? Let me know when you go back to being a semi-normal human being.”

 

Despite the fact that she knew Riley had the right of the matter, irritation still stirred within Tanith, and she straightened up. “I will be, just as soon as you're worth giving the time of day…”

 

“Enough!”

 

Silence fell on the group, words tumbling away from Tanith before she could speak them. The peripheral bickers, the whisperings probably taking bets on a cat-fight between Slytherin and Gryffindor prefects, all voices faded away as Tobias raised his hands and his voice.

 

She’d never seen him have that effect on a room before. Stun it into silence, certainly; reason a crowd into the ground, yes. Simply command the attention of two dozen rowdy students with one word and a gesture? That was… new.

 

“We are supposed to be the heart of Hogwarts. Let us begin acting like it,” Tobias said, now more mildly as the other prefects began to move out so as to encircle him, letting him take the centre of the gathering and the attention. Even Riley almost moved out to join the crowd before she remembered her Head Girl badge and shifted over to stand next to, but a little behind her counterpart. “Jennifer, thank you for joining us. If you could perhaps ask for a message to be sent up warning us of lateness if such an occasion arises again, we would all be grateful.”

 

“You think Snape would let me –”

 

“I shall ask Professor Snape if he might inform us when he is keeping a prefect behind before a meeting,” Tobias swept over Riley's excuse smoothly. “I am sure he will be reasonable.” Somewhere in the room, someone snorted, but it was suppressed quickly and Tobias completely ignored them. “And Tanith, Malfoy, if we could have less unconstructive commentary, that would be appreciated.”

 

The anger cooled in Tanith just as quickly as it had been boiling, for Tobias’ tone spoke of understanding even as it held criticism. But a sideways glance from Malfoy, the boy universally accepted as the crown prince of young Death Eaters and who undeniably held connections to He Who Must Not Be Named's movement, did not look so calmed. In fact, he was glaring at Tobias with a dark, angry look in his eyes, showing every ounce how little he appreciated being talked down to – not by a fellow Slytherin, not by someone he considered beneath him.

 

It looked as if Slytherin House was splintering, as she had long foreseen, into those who wished to join the rest of Hogwarts and those who wished to be above it. Malfoy led the latter, and Tobias now seemed to be a figurehead for the former.

 

She had long assumed she could walk between the two, not mix with those of closed minds on both sides, stay away from the school politics and worry about the real threats. But the line between them was starting to become hazy, the outside world defining Hogwarts more than ever before.

 

It seemed that, soon enough, neutrality would be impossible.

Chapter 9: The Beautiful Game
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Chapter 8: The Beautiful Game


 

“This year is going to be a year where we have to work hard. Harder than any other year, and not because of the Cup. But because this team is in an unusual position, and one which is going to require us to look towards the future.”

 

The four members of the Slytherin Quidditch team looked at their Captain with slightly bemused expressions, until Bletchley raised a hand curiously. “But we’ve only got to recruit two more players,” he pointed out.

 

“Correct,” Jack Urquhart confirmed, nodding. He was hovering on his broom in front of the stands, on which the rest of his team were lounging, watching, and listening, the empty pitch dragging out behind them. Soon enough, there would be dozens of hopeful Slytherins filling the field to try out for the team, but beforehand, they had to sit and talk strategy for the year. Decide what they wanted from the potentials. And, it seemed to Cal, all acknowledge that Urquhart was boss.

 

The burly fifth-year hovered down a little closer to the stands. “One more Chaser, one more Beater. We also want some possible substitutes for each position. But that’s not all. How many of you sitting here with me this time next year?”

 

A pause as the three seventh-years exchanged glances, and Malfoy languidly raised a hand. Urquhart nodded grimly. “Exactly. This is an old team. And we don’t want to be in a position next year where we have to fill half of the ranks with completely inexperienced players because you all finished school. This was why I was made team Captain, and not one of you. Because Slytherin team need to prepare for the future.”

 

Cal noticed that this didn’t give much explanation as to why Malfoy, with two more years of possible play ahead of him, hadn’t been given the captain’s job – but he didn’t over think the issue, just glad that they instead had someone who wanted to win more than they wanted to play politics.

 

“So I don’t just want us looking for people who can fill the holes we’ve got this year. I don’t want the substitutes to just be people who couldn’t quite make the cut. I want the substitutes to be considered team members-in-training. I want Bletchley to be teaching the substitute Keeper himself, getting them ready to be the replacement. I want our substitute Chaser to train with Pucey, myself, and our new first-string player. I want Brynmor not just learning how to work with a new Beater, but making sure the new Beater and the substitute will make a good partnership in a year’s time.” Urquhart paused, scratching the back of his head as he seemed to consider his words for a moment. “I also want you, Malfoy, to work with a substitute Seeker.”

 

Malfoy straightened up indignantly. “I’m not leaving school next year,” he snapped. For most of the morning he’d looked incredibly weary and drawn, but it seemed that he could tap into new levels of energy reserves the moment he was challenged or questioned.

 

“No,” Urquhart conceded, “but your health has been low so far this year. Have you even got yourself down to Madam Pomfrey’s?”

 

“I’m fine,” Malfoy snapped, standing up straight, though undermining his words a little with the fact that he had to lean somewhat on his Nimbus 2001 to stay completely upright.

 

“Really. So why the headaches getting you excused from class? How can I guarantee you’re going to be well enough to make all of the training sessions? Or even well enough on the day?” Urquhart challenged, drifting on his broom closer to the stands again, visibly bristling.

 

“I’ll be…”

 

“Not to mention the fact,” the Quidditch captain continued brusquely, “that your success rate in matches has been erratic at best, and you have never, never beaten Potter to the Snitch – something I cannot overlook when Gryffindor continue to be the cup holders and the team we need to soundly beat the most.”

 

Malfoy’s lip curled as he straightened up. “If you’re thinking of removing me from the team…”

 

Urquhart again cut him off, landing on the stand in front of the Seeker and glaring down at him. Jack Urquhart had been recruited for Slytherin team by Edmund Montague himself, who had been a traditional captain appreciating certain values amongst his team. Those values often included the phrase ‘built like a brick shit house’, and there was no other way of describing the new captain. Urquhart towered over Malfoy, and though the latter didn’t quake, Cal thought him rather dull to not do so. For the burly fifth-year didn’t just have size on his side, he believed – he had also demonstrated a keen tactical mind and, most importantly, a deep, dogged determination to win.

 

Cal didn’t fancy himself easily scared, but he didn’t want to be someone to get in between Urquhart and a win. Like it seemed Malfoy was doing.

 

“You’ll what?” Jack demanded sharply. “Wail and cry? You think that I care? Or you’ll set your daddy dearest on us? I’m quaking in my boots in fear of what a man can do from a cell in Azkaban.”

 

Malfoy glared, bringing himself up to his full height and still standing a good head shorted than Urquhart. “How dare you speak ill of my father!”

 

“I’ll speak ill of anyone who happens to be a bloody criminal, and I won’t apologise for treating his son like crap because he’s unable to fight his own battles and instead has to go running behind his mother’s skirts when the going gets tough.” Urquhart folded his arms across his chest, expression stony and deeply cold.

 

Malfoy looked at his broom for a second, then tossed it to the floor of the stands in disgust. “I don’t have to stand here and listen to this rubbish,” he declared haughtily, before turning on his heel and storming towards the exit.

 

Did I give you permission to leave this training exercise, Draco?” Urquhart bellowed, making the three seventh-years jump and Malfoy freeze in his tracks. “You leave now, you leave the team, and everyone will know that Draco Malfoy is a quitter who can’t stand it when he doesn’t get his own way.”

 

Malfoy turned around slowly, and the expression on his face made even Cal blink. For there was no petulant glare, no sneer of irritation. Just a blank, controlled look, devoid of haughty presumption or childish tantrums. But as he fixed his gaze on Urquhart, the captain didn’t falter.

 

“…Fine,” Malfoy declared at last, quietly, stiffly, walking back towards where he had been seated and plonking himself down, drawing his broom to him. “You want me to find a substitute I can train as a possible replacement. I’ll do that.” His voice sounded cold, but empty.

 

“Good.” Urquhart padded back to his broom, bringing it to the ground and leaning against the front of the stands as he turned back to the rest of the players. “If we can’t win the cup this year,” he continued, brisk and firm and as if nothing had happened, “then we need to put everything in place so we can win next year, or the year after. Still, I know that the last time Slytherin lifted the Cup, the only players still on the team now were second years then. I know you want to lift the Cup again before you leave. I know I want to lift it once at all before I leave.

 

“This is not going to be a year where we fight dirty. This is not going to be a year where we value size over ability. We aren’t going to give fouls, we aren’t going to try to bulldoze opponents. We’re going to play it smart, and we’re going to play it tight. We are resourcefulness, we are cunning, we are ambition. Three qualities which equal victory on the playing field when combined with tactics, with knowing when to hold back, with teamwork. And I promise you… if you listen to me, if we stick together, if we strive to be all we can be, then we will lift that Cup in the summer term. I promise you.”

 

Cal had heard this speech before, from Flint, from Montague. But back then it had always been a case of “there is no price too high for victory”. And he didn’t know where Urquhart would draw the line if defeat became a possibility, didn’t know how far this ambitious young captain would drive his team.

 

But the funny thing was, for the first time, Cal actually found himself believing the promises made, and when Bletchley gave out a whoop of enthusiasm and began to clap loudly, Cal was the first to fall in line with the cheering.

 

When the wannabes filtered out onto the playing field, it was to meet a Slytherin team who stood tall and proud, and put them through their paces with inspiring enthusiasm and unapologetic judgement. Urquhart was polite, but firm, and within thirty minutes half a dozen prospective players were resoundingly dismissed just for plain not being good enough.

 

It was obvious who had been training in the summer and who hadn’t, especially amongst those still in the team. Pucey demonstrated himself to be a little rusty as a fifth year named Vaisey, who had subbed on the team before and had a match or two under his belt, ran rings around him as they tested a Chaser’s ability to beat a defensive formation – but one would have never believed Vaisey to be one of Urquhart’s best friends when the captain swept in with a vicious, but legitimate tackle that sent Vaisey almost off his broom but left the Quaffle in Urquhart’s bulky hands. Still, Vaisey made it through to the next round of tests.

 

Bletchley was particularly on form, being practically impossible for the prospective Chasers to beat – only the aforementioned Vaisey and a fourth-year girl named Strickland got any past him, and the latter just barely. Cal knew his classmate well, and knew that the Keeper had been genuinely inspired by Urquhart. He could also see that it was clear he’d been training hard over the summer, and it was no secret he had expected to receive the Captain badge after Montague was dropped unceremoniously from the team. That he was still playing his utmost was… encouraging, and though Cal didn’t know the somewhat podgy third year who still had grace on a broom, it looked as if Bletchley had put sincere thought into his decision on a substitute Keeper.

 

For Seeker selection, Malfoy had taken a genuinely inspired approach. Grabbing a dozen Snitches, he had unleashed them into the midst of the selection for the other positions and hovered above it all, looking down. Those who wished to be selected as Seeker substitute need only bring him the most Snitches. Any who dropped out before all Snitches had been selected were excluded from selection. And by the time the selection was over, the new Slytherin team substitute Seeker was a wiry fifth-year named Harper, clutching his four Snitches.

 

That left Beater selection, and when the Chaser selections were done, Cal insisted the four players put together some small two versus two play for him to disrupt. Then it was just a case of assigning a prospective Beater to either side and letting them loose – who could damage the other side while protecting their own. It was a delicate balance playing Beater, impossible to allow one of the pair to be defensive with the other offensive, for no one person could protect the whole team, nor could Bludgers be sufficiently anticipated.

 

Before long he had about five potential Beaters, and each of these in turn he paired up with to take on an opposing team, for Cal knew that not only did they have to be a competent Beater, they had to be someone he could stand to play with and work well with. That simple case of incompatibility quickly eliminated a competent fourth year, and before long he had picked another fourth year, Waddell, as his new partner. Surprising even Urquhart, though, was the candidate for Beater substitute, a small, scrawny second year named Rosewood who made up for his size with unerring accuracy and speed, and Cal knew needed to be developed from an early age.

 

The try-outs thus began to wind down, and the Slytherins started to filter off, heading back to the castle for lunch, or to the dungeon, or off to saunter the grounds and enjoy some of the last rays of the dying summer. The balls were gathered up, and just as Cal and Waddell wrestled the second Bludger back into the case, Malfoy let out a curse.

 

Cal looked up at the scrawny sixth-year irritably, sighing deeply. “What is it? Broke a nail?”

 

“There’s a Snitch missing,” Malfoy said, shaking his head. He looked even paler after the morning’s exercises, and there was a thin sheen of sweat across his forehead. “It must not have been brought in.” He looked up, eyes scanning the pitch for a few moments before he pointed at the Hufflepuff stands. “Yes, there it goes – and gone again.”

 

Cal had been following his gaze, and thought he might have seen a flicker of gold, though it could have just been a trick of the light. But there had been no doubt in Malfoy’s voice, and he had to concede that, much as he might not like the other boy, they were in their respective positions for a reason.

 

The Seeker was shouldering his broom again, straightening up and looking tired, but resolute. “Leave the box out, Ravenclaw have the pitch next for the try-outs. I’ll go fetch the bloody thing…”

 

“Leave it out, Malfoy, you look knackered,” Cal told him in no uncertain terms, laying a large hand on his shoulder. “Go get some food, maybe some kip. Otherwise you’ll just fall off your broom and land on your head up there, and then you’ll be no use to nobody. I’ll go fetch the Snitch.”

 

Malfoy looked at him quizzically for a few moments. “You’re a Beater,” he said weakly, with confusion but not much argument.

 

“Doesn’t mean I’m blind, does it now? Get your arse out of here.” Cal waved a hand dismissively, turning to pick up his broom, eyes scanning the pitch and most certainly not on Malfoy. If the Snitch had been by the stands before, it wasn’t there now.

 

Malfoy shifted his feet a little, giving Cal a dubiously appraising look. “Alright,” he said grudgingly at last, lowering his broom. “Thanks, Brynmor. See you later.”

 

Cal said nothing, hopping onto his broom as Malfoy and the rest of the Slytherins headed back to the castle, leaving him on his own.

 

Usually, he would have relished the opportunity to fly high, look down at Hogwarts, and enjoy the peace, enjoy being alone with his thoughts. But these days his thoughts had not really been very good company, and so he kept his focus on the Snitch, looking down for the small golden orb rather than taking in the view of the castle. Below him he could see a couple of the Ravenclaw Quidditch team heading out towards the pitch…

 

…and there, by the Keeper’s third ring on the left hand side, the Snitch hovered in the air, glinting.

 

Cal allowed himself to just fall from the sky, letting gravity do the work rather than the broom, dropping like a dead weight towards the Golden Snitch below him. It seemed to hang there for a long moment, oblivious to him until he was almost on top of it – then it shimmered slightly, and began to plunge.

 

Then he kicked in the power of the broom to propel himself more rapidly towards the ground, and the Snitch didn’t get more than ten feet before he was close enough to reach out and snatch it. It was hardly as smooth or as effective a move as a Seeker would employ, and he would doubtless have been beaten to the catch by an opponent in a match, but for just retrieving a rogue ball, it did the trick.

 

Cal hovered back towards the ground, and squinted down at the two Ravenclaws as he drew nearer, seeing them bending over the case of the balls. One of them, a girl in his year he only knew dimly whose name he thought might be Lockett, glanced up as she saw him approaching, and gave a small, cheerful wave. But the other, a fifth year, was still bent over the case and, as Cal looked, pulled irreverently on the strap holding one of the Bludger's down to let it loose.

 

His eyes widened. "No, don't do -"

 

Although he shouted a warning, it was too late. Bludgers needed to be released carefully, with people standing back and hopefully a few players already in the air so as to make it shoot away from people on the ground. Two people huddled over the box was just a recipe for disaster.

 

The fifth year boy seemed to realise his mistake at the same time Cal shouted, and threw himself back just quick enough to avoid the Bludger, which tore past the front of his face. But Lockett hadn't been paying attention, and Cal's shout only prompted the most common reaction to someone shouting and pointing - look with confusion at the direction they were gesturing in.

 

The Bludger smashed her in the face, producing a sickening crunch, a small spray of blood from the nose and sending her flying onto her back. The fifth year just let out a huge yelp as he threw himself away again from the Bludger, which whirled around in the air and seemed to be looking for new targets.

 

Cal leapt off his broom and ran forward, retrieving the bat he had abandoned on the ground and whirling it around to give the Bludger a good hard whack, sending it spinning up into the air and far away. He watched it for a few moments, bat still raised, until he was satisfied that it was just going to remain hovering over the pitch.

 

When he lowered his bat and turned back, it was to face half of the Ravenclaw team, who had appeared seemingly from nowhere and were glaring at him. Except for Lockett, who was by now sitting up with her head between her knees, blood dripping from her face, and another girl kneeling next to her and rubbing her back.

 

"Uh... you're welcome?" Cal lowered the bat, looking at the assembled with more than a touch of confusion at the air of hostility he was receiving.

 

"What did you do, Brynmor?" demanded Boot, his opposite as a Beater. From the set of his jaw and tone of his voice it did not sound as if he was asking exactly how Cal had saved two of the players from being hammered by a rampaging Bludger.

 

"Uh..." The fifth-year who had released the Bludger danced from foot to foot vaguely, wringing his hands together, but didn't quite speak up.

 

"What the... Oh, Jesus!" Cal threw his hands up in the air as realisation sank in, not quite figuring that this meant he was waving a large bat around the air in a manner that could be construed as threatening. The gathering took a step back. "You think I hammered one of your Chasers with my bat or a Bludger? You self-righteous pricks!"

 

"What's going on?"

 

All turned to see the Ravenclaw captain, Theron Howlett, striding over towards the gathering. The seventh-year Howlett was tall and apparently good-looking, with scruffy brown hair that somehow managed to seem 'ruffled' rather than messy, and a winning, if unbearably smug smile. Cal couldn't stand him, but the fact remained that he was looking just as dubiously at his own team as he was at the offending Slytherin.

 

"One of your idiots didn't know how to release a Bludger properly, and Lockett got hit in the face," Cal explained calmly, though with an audible, simmering anger. "Then the rest of your idiots decided to accuse me of attacking her. Like I'm that much of a fuck."

 

"It's true, Theron," Lockett said thickly, getting to her feet. A sleeve was held up to her nose, the blue material already showing some soaking from the blood. "Brynmor stopped the damn thing from swatting us more."

 

Howlett raised an eyebrow, looking mostly appeared. "Really." He glanced back at the crowd of the team. "And which 'idiot' released the Bludger?"

 

There was a silence of shuffling feet, before the offending fifth-year raised a hand slowly, sheepishly. "Sorry, Theron," he muttered.

 

Howlett sighed, shaking his head. "Like we have time for this rubbish. Primsby, take Lockett up to Madam Pomfrey's, get her seen to. The rest of you, hit the pitch, I'll be with you shortly."

 

Lockett shook her head, waving the younger girl leaning over her away. "I'm okay, Theron." The fact that she was having trouble pronouncing 'Theron' rather killed this argument, however, and Cal grinned despite himself.

 

"I'll take her up," he offered. "If you don't mind, that is. Let the team get to the practice, I know try-outs are a pain."

 

Howlett glanced over at Lockett, who sighed. "I don't need to go to Pomfrey's, let alone an escort, but... fine, fine. Thanks, Brynmor."

 

The Ravenclaw captain nodded. "Yeah, thanks. Alright, Primsby, hit the field. Lockett, don't come back until you're alright. Brynmor... do us a favour and make sure she actually gets as far as Madam Pomfrey, instead of doing a runner?"

 

Brynmor chuckled, nodding. "I'll do that," he promised, then turned to Lockett and nodded to the castle. "Come on, trouble."

 

"Trouble? It's not my fault Farrer doesn't know how to release a Bludger. I thought he was just going for the Quaffle," Lockett replied as briskly as one could through a face-full of sleeve and a streaming of blood. She was a rather small girl, slight of build and whom he knew to be quick on her feet and with a broom. Her brown hair was moderately short and a little wild, her green eyes flashing with merriment despite the pain. Her features were pointed, but more pixie-like than particularly sharp, and might have been cute were it not for the injury both marring her face and prompting her to obscure it.

 

"Hang on, I can't understand a word you're saying." Cal shook his head as they went up the steps to the entranceway to the castle, letting her go first so he could be ready to catch her if she stumbled or fell, aware of how blood loss and sheer shock could bring dizziness. As they got inside he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, extending it towards Lockett. It bore a small Slytherin House crest in the corner. "Here. It's better than your sleeve."

 

She took it, squinting at the design for a moment. "I can't take this, I'll get it covered in blood."

 

"And covering your kit in blood's a better option? I'll just Scourgify it later." Cal shook his head as she attempted to pass it back to him.

 

He grinned as she gingerly pulled her sleeve, stained with crimson, away from her face and gently put the handkerchief to her nose instead. "Anyway, didn't know how to safely release a Bludger? I thought you Ravenclaws were supposed to be smart?"

 

"And I thought Slytherins were supposed to be evil?" Lockett countered, much more audible with just the handkerchief across her face, though it was already beginning to stain.

 

"That is a scandalous lie and exaggeration." Cal smirked as he waggled a finger at her. "Cunning, yes. Resourceful, yes. Ambitious, yet. Does that mean evil incarnate?"

 

"It's in the sub-text, like Hufflepuffs being duffers, Gryffindors with more brawn than brains, and Ravenclaws seeing their intellect overshadowed only by their egos. So I'm just trying to figure out where you fit in with the Slytherin ethos."

 

Another chuckle. "Well, ambitious? I'm a Beater who was trying to catch a Snitch. Resourceful? I had a handkerchief on me exactly when it was needed."

 

Lockett grinned. "And cunning?"

 

"I did offer to walk you up to the hospital wing, didn't I?" Cal pointed out, the words escaping before he could properly assess and consider them. And as she laughed, he realised he was unwittingly flirting. This was new - the unwitting part, at least, for he usually knew exactly what he was doing, and it was normally to annoy some third party rather than for his own satisfaction.

 

That could be problematic.

 

Lockett cleared her throat slightly, also clearing the air a little in the process. "So you're back on the Slytherin team. That's good."

 

"Not from your perspective, I know which end of a bat to hold," Cal pointed out.

 

"I don't know. Someone needs to stop Gryffindor's streak, and it's not going to be us. And Urquhart getting Captain instead of it staying with Montague or going to Malfoy suggests the House is taking it seriously."

 

"I'm amazed someone wants us to win. I thought all you other Houses were meant to band together in the face of evil Slytherin?" Cal wondered aloud.

 

"Now that's another slanderous stereotype," Lockett pointed out, and grinned a grin that would probably have been charming if she didn't have a handkerchief across her nose and blood down her lower face.

 

The rest of the walk back up to the Hospital Wing was filled with mostly minor chit-chat about the state of Hogwarts Quidditch, mostly with the agreement that at this point it was preferable for anyone to win the Cup so long as it wasn't Gryffindor, and by the time they got there Cal found himself guiltily wishing the walk was longer.

 

"Well, here we are. I should be fine from here," Lockett declared as they stopped by the doorway.

 

Cal hesitated. "I did promise Howlett I'd make sure you went in and were actually seen by Madam Pomfrey, instead of you doing a runner."

 

She chuckled at that. "I'm in an honest dose of pain here, I think I'll take whatever Madam Pomfrey has to offer. No more Quidditch for me today." Lockett gently peeled the handkerchief away from her nose. The flow of blood had mostly stopped, and she looked gingerly at it as she extended it towards him. "Sorry about the mess... and thanks for the loan."

 

Cal half-extended his hand and opened his mouth to accept just as a voice shouted in his head ‘Tell her to keep it!’, and he snatched his hand back just as quickly, as if burnt in mid-air. "Oh, no," he said at last, his voice speeding up a very little. "You keep it, there might be a wait in there or something. Don't want you bleeding all over the place. I'll collect it from you later."

 

"Right. Thanks, Brynmor. I'll see you around." Lockett grinned at him, nodding her thanks, before pushing open the door to the Hospital Wing and stepping inside.

 

Cal stood there for a few moments, watching the closed door and telling himself he was hanging around to make sure she wasn't going to bolt. But when he couldn't quite justify it to himself he turned back, heading down the corridor in the direction of the dungeon.

 

And for the first time in a good few weeks there was a spring in his step, and a whistle on his lips.

Chapter 10: The Shape of Things to Come
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Chapter 9: The Shape of Things to Come


 

The droning tones of Professor Binns washed over Tobias as he sat in the otherwise abandoned History of Magic classroom, leaning back in his chair and openly reading a book while his teacher allegedly taught. It was a Saturday morning, and elsewhere the Slytherin Quidditch team attempted their try-outs to fill the squad, but for Tobias, it was still school time.

 

He was an oddity amongst the seventh-year NEWT students for doing six subjects, he knew, but most certainly not unique. But what did make him unique amongst several generations of Hogwarts students was the fact that he was taking History of Magic at NEWT level. This was such a rarity that for many years, and certainly not this year, History of Magic had not even been calculated into the timetable for NEWT students. Which meant that when he had been the one and only outrageous nerd - as Cal had declared him - big enough to sign up for classes, there had been a small flurry of panic amongst the staff. Snape had glared at him as if he'd just committed a cardinal sin, and McGonagall, responsible for overall time-tabling of the subjects, had given him all of the extra-tough questions in Transfigurations for weeks, satisfied only when she'd finally escalated the difficulty to the point where he couldn’t answer them.

 

The end result was that Tobias had the exact same week as any five-NEWT student, with a period off most fortunately landing on Monday mornings, which he viewed as an acceptable pay-off, and History had been slotted into the only spare gap, that of a Saturday morning for three hours.

 

Most people thought he was mad, wanting to spend more subjects under Binns' boring droning, and he would have agreed with them if he had actually wanted to do that. But Binns, who believed history needed teaching by simply standing at the front of the classroom and regurgitating the most boring of facts in the most boring of voices, had precious little to do with Tobias' education in the subject. He had long begun to treat it as a personal study time, where he could gather the History books collected from the library, or the past examination papers he'd managed to wheedle out of an irritated Professor Snape, and study at his own pace and his own leisure.

 

From the marks of the end of year six examinations, it seemed as if this routine was actually working.

 

It was almost midday by now, and Tobias began to wind down the notes he was taking on the International Wizarding Conference when the Statute of Magical Secrecy had been agreed upon. The political history had long interested him more than the average goblin rebellions - which seemed to occur very often - or the social notions of how wizards had lived a thousand years ago - much in the same way, just somewhat dirtier. Binns, of course, didn't appear to have noticed the time, or that Tobias had been consulting a book more than his lecture, and long he had wondered if the professor would figure it out if he just conjured an illusion of himself to sit in the class and spent the time instead working in the library or the common room.

 

But he had been here before, and instead begun to pack up his books once the clock to his left clicked to midday, only getting Binns' attention once he slung his bag over his shoulder and stood up. "Thank you for the lesson, professor," he said mildly. "I shall see you next week."

 

"Euh..." Binns paused mid-flow, only barely used to this routine that he and Tobias had halfway settled into. But, as was usually the intended goal of being so brisk and polite, he hadn't gathered an objection by the time his student was up and out the door, and wandering down the corridor.

 

Aggravating as it was to have classes on a Saturday, there was something liberating about the opportunity to study at his own pace, be in control of his own education, and so it was with a spring in his step that he sauntered along the corridor in the direction of Slytherin dungeon, head filled with intellectually distracting thoughts of most any subject save Professor Binns' lecture.

 

As he sauntered around the next corner, on a short-cut he actually knew to work and be devoid of any threats, physical, personal, or romantic, he almost walked straight into Professor Slughorn, who looked as if he was on his way up to the Great Hall for lunch.

 

The Potions Master smiled broadly upon seeing him, pausing in his journey. "Tobias, m'boy! Fresh from those extra lessons of yours?"

 

Tobias supposed that the oddity that were his NEWT choices had at least been mentioned about the staff room, though the thought had never really occurred to him before - at the very least, Slughorn had to have found out from someone other than him. "History, yes sir. I was just going to drop my books off at my dorm before lunch."

 

"Excellent, excellent. Mind if I walk with you?" Although it was phrased as a question, Slughorn immediately fell into step beside him, not leaving Tobias with much of a choice - but regardless, he liked the stout newest member of Hogwarts' staff. He was sensible without being prissy, confident without taking himself too seriously, and above all, competent.

 

"So, a self-taught NEWT, ey? That must be quite a challenge, on top of the other subjects and your Head Boy responsibilities. Got to be quite time consuming," Slughorn began, in that well-measured, meandering way some people had which made it perfectly clear they had a point, and quite an important one, but they were going to take their time getting to it.

 

Tobias shrugged, indulging the Professor for the moment. "I suppose so, sir, but if one enjoys something enough, one can find the time and the energy. And, despite Professor Binns' somewhat... dry portrayal of the subject matter, I have always had an interest in history."

 

"Of course, of course, and quite right too. We can't forget the mistakes and victories of the past, can we?" Slughorn nodded to himself, stroking his chin. "It's good to see you quite so devoted to the matter. I do appreciate seeing family traditions like that being upheld; your father before you was a great student of magical history."

 

Tobias almost stumbled, though inwardly cursed himself for being surprised even as he looked at Slughorn in astonishment. The professor had worked at Hogwarts long ago, he knew, and some whispered he had even taught Professor Snape Potions. If that was true, then it certainly put him at Hogwarts roughly the same time as Robert Grey.

 

"Yes, I know... it was through some of his old books I got interested in the subject," Tobias replied a little falteringly. "I didn't realise you taught my father, sir."

 

"Oh, yes. One of those truly talented students who could have gone far... very far. Alas, he was also one who knew what he wanted to do, and so didn't, perhaps, stretch himself as much as possible. Though nobody can deny his work was noble, of course," Slughorn added, almost hastily but with a slight glint in his eye as he stared off down the corridor that made him sound more genuine. "Not the finest potions brewer I've ever encountered, but very talented in his own way. Give him a hugely complicated recipe and he'd struggle as much as anyone - though I can't deny he'd get it done in the end, despite it all. But if I ever shortened the preparation time, placed a bit more pressure on the students, needed them to think twice as fast, well... it was like I hardly strained him at all. Under pressure he'd outstrip even some of the very greats."

 

"A talent I do not think I've inherited," Tobias sighed, more to himself than Slughorn, nudging his glasses up his nose.

 

"Nonsense, my boy!" Slughorn exclaimed, looking sharply at him. "You have his enthusiasm and brilliance, if not his outright diligence, if I may say so, based upon some of your essays. You lack some of the polish, but you've also gone and inherited your mother's flair, not to mention her stubbornness."

 

Conversations like this with Slughorn rather left Tobias with the impression he'd been put through a whirlwind; the Professor danced around his point, testing his approach from different directions, trying to find the most accessible point of entry. He generally found it to be best to just go with the flow and try to not drown in the discussion.

 

"Stubbornness?" he echoed, feeling quite dull.

 

"And determination. I suppose that's what keeps you going even when the studies don't entirely keep your interest. And you'll need it - after all, I hear you've been sending job applications to the Ministry?" Slughorn's voice turned curious, almost innocent - but not convincingly so. They were certainly approaching the point.

 

"Department of International Magical Cooperation, yes, sir," Tobias confirmed. "Just as an attaché at one of our embassies... no idea where, yet. I'd rather like to see some of the world, and make a difference while I'm about it. Not to mention how I feel that Britain could do with some friends right now."

 

"Too true," Slughorn replied, with a slight snort that suggested he was being genuine this time. "It's an admirable ideal, absolutely admirable. And with all you've achieved already I don't doubt they'll hire you. Likely to have six excellent NEWTs, and people are going to notice one of the first actual qualifications in History in years, let alone a good one. And Head Boy, not to mention the first Slytherin Head Boy in... ohh..."

 

"Nine years," Tobias replied without missing a beat. "Though I wasn't first choice."

 

Slughorn waved a hand dismissively. "But you were the choice, and that's all people will remember. Don't ever undermine your own achievements, my boy, other people will try to do that for you plenty. Listen..." He paused, turning to face Tobias and tilting his head at him a little questioningly. "You say you want to make a difference in the world, and that's all very well and good, but I fear nobody can do that on their own. I'm having a gathering next Saturday evening in my office of some like minded individuals who have benevolent ambitions, such as yourself. You'd be very welcome." He paused, then grinned broadly, toothily. "And I'd be quite happy afterwards to put you in contact with a few old students of mine who've gone on to work in the Department of International Magical Cooperation... I'm sure they could help you out here and there..."

 

Despite how innocent the words sounded, there was something about the tone of his voice and the posture that made Tobias narrow his eyes with a modicum of suspicion - yet, much as he thought about it over the few seconds of hesitation he permitted himself, neither could he find anything iniquitous about the offer.

 

However much Tobias did like Professor Slughorn, he couldn't really deny that, on certain occasions, the man oozed. This was one of them.

 

But Tobias grinned broadly, nodding. "I'd be quite happy to pop along, Professor. At the least, some tips from the inside are always useful."

 

"Of course they are, of course they are." Slughorn clapped him on the back soundly, and Tobias stumbled a little. "Well, excellent. Seven o' clock sharp, though there are always latecomers. I'll see you in lessons anyway before then... and I should be off to lunch! Good day, my boy!"

 

And then he was gone, bounding down the corridor with as much grace as a fairly rotund older man could manage, leaving a moderately stunned Tobias in his wake.

 

He'd heard rumours of this 'Slug Club', but considering how he knew two of its members to be Harry Potter and Cormac McLaggen, he hadn't been particularly enamoured with the notion of joining. But an express invitation was different - it did suggest that Slughorn's interests were beyond candidates more obvious than the so-called 'Chosen One' and the largest ego in Gryffindor, and thus the school.

 

Maybe it wasn't a waste of time. Maybe it could even help.

 

As he passed by the Great Hall, Slughorn detaching himself and making a bee-line towards lunch, Professor Snape emerged through the door, looking the pair up with a slightly dubious air. As he saw Slughorn leaving, the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher seemed to nod to himself, and strode purposefully over to Tobias, as with Slughorn falling into step beside him without asking.

 

"Grey," he greeted him coolly, though with probably as much warmth as he ever had. It wasn't as if Snape played particular favourites with individuals in his House - rather, focused his bias on protecting them as a whole from the onslaught of others - but he had never really had much time for Tobias. Snape had always demonstrated himself to be aware of politics, though not enthused by them, and so knew to not land on the wrong side of the Malfoys, or the Drakes, or even the Coles. A half-blood whose witch mother was already held at arm's length by her family, if not ostracised, did not need to be pandered to more than anyone else.

 

"Professor Snape," Tobias greeted him, perfectly civilly, though offered no more platitudes nor asked to what he owed the 'pleasure' of his teacher's company. Snape would get to the matter soon enough.

 

"You have been performing adequately in lessons," his teacher began, hands clasped behind his back. "I trust there shall be just as much enthusiasm and excellence in the practical challenges next week as there has been on the essays thus far?"

 

Again, Tobias was suspicious. "I shall certainly try, sir."

 

"And it seems Professor Slughorn has been trying to enlist your talents. I assume there was an invitation there to his little soiree next weekend?" There, a slight note of derision crept into his voice, though a lot less overt than he usually gave most matters he disapproved of.

 

"Ah, yes, sir. I thought it best to attend, perhaps see what the Professor has in mind," Tobias replied falteringly, not sure if Snape would approve, not sure if he should be seeking his approval.

 

"You seem to also be making connections between Houses with the prefects. People seem to be speaking quite highly of your performance as Head Boy. I know Professor Dumbledore is rather impressed," Snape continued. This time, Tobias got the impression he was approaching his point. With Slughorn, it had felt like dealing with a fencer - a fat fencer, but one nevertheless dancing about, testing your defences, seeing the best approach. With Snape, it was more like a shark circling you.

 

"He is?" Tobias asked, genuinely surprised. "I would have thought he'd have objected to somebody contributing to a positive reputation for Slytherin House."

 

The bitterness escaped his lips before he could stop it, and he swore internally as he realised he'd just voiced the criticism in front of a teacher. But, though there was a brief flash in Snape's dark eyes, he still smiled a thin, taut, but genuine smile. "One might have thought, yes," he confirmed. "But I think he rather views you... as I do... as holding in your hands the possible shape of things to come."

 

Tobias paused, tilting his head curiously at Snape. "Sir?"

 

The professor was by now seeming visibly uncomfortable. "You are improving Slytherin House's public image without making us... weaker, or conformist. That is to be commended. But you must be careful, Grey. The future is an unforgiving beast, and a day may come sooner than we think where it will not bode well to have stood in Professor Dumbledore's camp."

 

He did notice the past tense in the words, but refused to reflect too much on them. If there were anyone's mysteries he did not wish to delve into, they were Severus Snape's.

 

"I'm in Slytherin House's camp, sir," Tobias replied, unhesitant once he had decided to not involve himself in the unknown factors in play.

 

"Really." Snape looked appraisingly at him, and he could feel the dark eyes almost boring into his skull. "Even when Slytherin contains those you patently dislike or even loathe? It is no secret that you treat Mister Malfoy, Miss Parkinson, and Mister Talley just as harshly as Jennifer Riley treats them. Prefects of your own House."

 

"I treat them as they deserve to be treated," Tobias said briskly, frowning a little. "I have no wish to be the Slytherin Head Boy who came into the job and began dispersing favouritism. Actions like that are why people hate us."

 

Snape paused, stroking his chin. "Do you believe I am biased towards Slytherin House, Grey?"

 

"I think that if you are, it's to counter-balance everyone else's bias against the House, sir," Tobias replied smoothly.

 

"And you remember the conversation we had when I took you to Professor Dumbledore's office at the beginning of the year? I will not always be around to defend Slytherins, I do not even have the time this year to do so."

 

Snape paused, stopping in the corridor and turning to face Tobias, who halted also. "I am well aware of the flaws of some of our members. As are, of course, the rest of the school. You are perhaps the only member of the House with anything resembling a positive public image. The only one seen as a... 'good' Slytherin."

 

Tobias blinked at him. "Uh... yes, sir," he said, by now completely lost.

 

"It is so very easy for those who stand against us to identify you as an... exception. A fluke. 'Not a real Slytherin'. And so, when you make a move against those they consider 'real' Slytherins, and hate, they learn... absolutely nothing. They assume you hate your House." Snape shrugged slightly, and resumed their walk. "And learn nothing."

 

"So what would you have me do, sir?" Tobias asked, frowning and even more confused. "Defend them? Protect them? Then I'll be seen as nothing more than another Slytherin blind to our own flaws. With respect, sir, you protect us, but that doesn't change the view others have of us."

 

"No, it does not. This is partly why I am expecting so much of you - you can do what I cannot. But right now, you are simply wasting your potential for change, just as much as you would be wasting it if you acted like me." Snape gave a small, aggravated sigh. "What would I have you do? I would have you leave no doubt in anybody's mind that you are a Slytherin. Cloak yourself in what it means to be a Slytherin just as much as Mister Malfoy does, and so challenge the misconceptions of others by doing so. Do what you are doing now, by all means. Make them respect you, make them even like you. But make them know that you are not a fluke, an exception."

 

Tobias stared at the head of his house for several long moments, visibly gaping. "How, exactly, am I supposed to do that, sir?"

 

Snape straightened up, looking down at him with something of a sneer on his face, the expression he usually reserved for individuals who said something stupid in class. By now they were outside of the door to the Slytherin dungeon, and had come to a hesitant halt. "Why, Grey," he said wryly, "I thought you were supposed to be intelligent?"

 

And with that he turned on his heel and swept off, leaving Tobias standing there blankly in the corridor.

 

So it was with something less of a spring in his step that he made his way, finally, down to the Slytherin dungeons. The windows on the ceiling were enchanted to withstand the pressure of the lake above them and make the water appear clear, and the bright sunlight outside meant that the common room was bathed in shimmering green ethereal light of the sun's rays refracted by the water. The dungeon, not known for its aesthetic pleasures and appreciated more for being cosy and out of the way, was at its prettiest right then, and so it was with his mood improving that Tobias claimed a sofa to lounge on, dumped his books on the table in front of him, and picked up the day's copy of the Daily Prophet to peruse.

 

It was impressive, he had to concede, how quickly a paper could change its tune, and all the while pretend as if there was no rampant hypocrisy. One moment You-Know-Who being back was a myth perpetrated only by madmen and traitors, and the next, anyone not working towards the 'war effort' was a rampant coward.

 

So it didn't take long, as per usual, for Tobias to throw the paper back down alongside his books with a modicum of disgust, just in time to see Tanith sauntering into the common room. She spotted him quickly and headed over in his direction with a note of visible determination.

 

"'Lo, Grey," she greeted him, hurriedly swallowing remnants of lunch and brushing crumbs off her front before she plonked herself down next to him. "How was Boring 101?"

 

"I don't know, I was doing my own studying," Tobias replied, raising an eyebrow. "So you're allowed to talk to me today?"

 

Tanith blinked at him owlishly, not seeming to comprehend. "What?"

 

He paused for a moment, watching her expression, but saw no hint of deceit, and shook his head. "Nothing. Sorry. You've just seemed to be erratic in whether or not you want to talk to me on any given day."

 

"Oh..." Tanith's gaze dropped, and she casually brushed some more crumbs away. "Sorry if I've been doing that," she continued, reaffirming eye contact. "I've just been... you know, stressed out. Got a load more stuff from the Auror Department. More entry requirements, more training preparation, and I still don't even have an acceptance to my application."

 

Tobias waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, come on, if they weren't going to accept you they'd have told you so by now."

 

"Apparently not," Tanith sighed, leaning back. "Van Roden's told me horror stories of people who did all the prep and then didn't even make it as far as interview."

 

"Well, you've got that far at least," Tobias pointed out. "When is it, again?"

 

"Just after Christmas. I'm going to need to get permission to leave the school on a weekend to go down to London for it." Tanith sighed, shaking her head. "Weeks’ worth of school holidays, but can they schedule it then? No, that'd be too easy."

 

Tobias chuckled and nodded. "It's always the way. Anyway, just glad I haven't hacked you off or anything. When I've annoyed Tanith Cole to the extent she isn't even shouting at me, something's wrong."

 

There was a pause at that, a slight flicker, though she had never been comfortable at having it pointed out to her, by friends, just how difficult she could get when she lost her infamous temper. "Yeah. No, it's just... the work and all. You know how it is." She waved a hand dismissively, then glanced over at him again. "Though speaking of people behaving oddly..."

 

He sighed, knowing where this one was going. "Cal?"

 

"Still been all weird. Writing a lot. I think they're letters, Gawain's been back and forth like nobody's business."

 

"That could just be to Will," Tobias pointed out.

 

"But he never writes to Will that much."

 

"And now there's a war."

 

Tanith sighed. "That doesn't mean he hasn't been weird. Foul-moods, generally stroppy. Working more in lessons like defence, but rumour has it he's been all over the place in Muggle Studies. I'd think he's having a crisis of faith or something, but..." Her gaze dropped.

 

Tobias tilted his head. "But what?"

 

"He knows we met his father." Tanith was grimacing as she looked back up. "He knows it happened, and he knows we didn't tell him."

 

A slight cold twist began to settle in Tobias' stomach. "How does he know? Who told him?"

 

"I don't know. He had made it to outside of the Displacement Area, and might have been at the Auror camps for a while after we left. He could have just overheard someone." Tanith didn't really sound like she believed that any more than Tobias did.

 

They were interrupted by the loud and cheerful arrival of the Quidditch team, and immediately quietened down for risk of Cal appearing and overhearing them. But in trooped Urquhart, making a bee-line for his dorm. Behind him were Pucey and Malfoy, bringing with them the half-dozen younger Slytherins who were the new appointees to the team, or at least substitutes, and the cheer was audible. And last in, as no Cal joined them, was Bletchley, visibly wincing and rubbing his shoulder, closing the doorway behind him with noticeable difficulty.

 

As Tobias and Tanith were seated rather in the centre of the common room they were immediately joined by the team, the exuberant Pucey dragging the younger students over, and the seats rapidly filled up. By the time Bletchley had approached them, easing gingerly into an abandoned armchair with a wince, Urquhart had emerged from his room, brandishing a pack of butterbeer.

 

"Snuck this in with my trunk," he explained, setting it on the table. "I think the newly formed Cup-winning Slytherin Quidditch team needs to be toasted well, after all!"

 

He handed out the bottles, even offering ones to Tanith and Tobias with a cheerful nod. When Bletchley was handed his, he automatically reached out with his bad right arm, and this time let out an audible hiss of pain.

 

Urquhart looked quizzically at his Keeper, but it was Tanith who leaned towards him, frowning. "What'd you do to that arm, Miles?" she asked, the slight edge to her voice suggesting the answer needed to be truthful.

 

Bletchley shook his head. "Nothing," he said briskly, then realised this wasn't the right answer. "Just over-stretched for a save back there, that's all."

 

"You should get yourself down to Pomfrey's," Urquhart told him firmly.

 

"Nah, no need, it's not that bad. It's just a muscle being pissy, it'll settle down," Bletchley insisted, shaking his head again and cracking open the bottle of butterbeer.

 

"Oh, stop being a silly macho git and let me take a look at it. If you get to these things early it'll stop it from getting worse," Tanith said in a no-nonsense tone, setting down her bottle and padding over to perch behind him on the armchair.

 

Bletchley opened his mouth to complain, but Urquhart waggled a finger at him. "No, no," the younger boy told him. "You listen to the nice lady, Miles, and do as your told."

 

"Yes, Mum," the Keeper retorted, rolling his eyes, but leaned back and didn't offer further resistance as Tanith began to knead the muscles around his neck and shoulder.

 

"You didn't warm up before the try-outs, did you?" Tanith asked rhetorically, shaking her head. "You're going to have worse strains if you don't. You need to get the muscles loose before you start stretching and yanking them, you silly bugger."

 

"Mmm," was Miles' first, elegant reply, as Tobias rolled his eyes and took a large gulp of his butterbeer, trying to focus more on the enthusing of the Quidditch players about themselves, each other, tactics, and most importantly, how they were going to beat Gryffindor.

 

Quidditch bored the hell out of him.

 

"Besides, looks like I don't need to warm-up," Bletchley continued. "Not if I've got you to give me a massage after every practice. Ow," he finished, punctuating the swat around the head he got from Tanith for his efforts.

 

"You do this again, and I'll leave you under the tender cares of Jack," she retorted, gesturing to a grinning Urquhart.

 

"So." Tobias leaned forwards, looking intently at the Quidditch team and clearing his throat a little pointedly. "We're feeling... good about the match?"

 

“‘I’ll go home to my parents, confess what I’ve done…’

 

The door swung open to let in Cal, who was singing almost at the top of his voice and swaggering with much of his old confidence and cheer. He sauntered over to the table, wearing a broad grin. “‘And I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son…’ Oooh, butterbeer. You're a star, Jack."

 

"Hey, Cal!" Tobias greeted his friend with more enthusiasm than usual, and a good deal of it genuine as Tanith also looked up, ceasing her work on Bletchley.

 

"Hey, mate. I'm just going to get out of this kit, I'm dying in here." He gave Tobias a hefty clap on the back, then sauntered off towards the dormitory. “‘And if they caress me as ofttimes before, Sure I never will play the wild rover no more…

 

There was a moment, as the Quidditch team continued their revelry, and Tobias and Tanith exchanged glances, the latter looking dubious. "Well," she said, shrugging. "He looks a lot better. Maybe we don't need to stage an intervention?"

 

Tobias nodded firmly, grimacing a little. "That," he agreed, "would make life considerably easier."

 

Chapter 11: The Fall
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Chapter 10: The Fall




 

“Your training,” Snape began, standing at the very front of the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, “is supposed to be very near completion. And yet, your education in the art of magical combat and defence has been… sporadic, at best. Erratic and often incompetent teachers have left you under-qualified for witches and wizards of your level. Now, books away. Wands out. And stand up.”

 

Snape gave a casual flick of the wand as the seventh-year NEWT students got to their feet, and the desks they had been sitting at whipped away from them to line up along the far wall, leaving a large space in the centre where the pupils were gathered.

 

"Last lesson we went over the theory that you have covered, and though your attainment level is, for the most part, insufficient for seventh-years, there is a solid groundwork I can build upon. Today we are going to address your practical education and training. I need to see how much you know, how able you are, so I can address your inadequacies."

 

Everyone noted, silently, that Snape made no allowances for the possibility that there were no such inadequacies. But the Slytherins assembled were not foolish enough to say anything of the sort out loud, not when Snape was, by now, pacing in front of them with his hands clasped behind his back.

 

"The best way to judge is to view you under tension. Thus I shall test you each against one another, and we shall... assess where to go from here." Snape stopped, turning crisply to face them, standing straight. "The best of you first, then. Cole, Grey, up front."

 

Tanith and Tobias exchanged glances, the later with raised eyebrows, before they obligingly stepped over towards Professor Snape. "Sir?"

 

"Grey, your technical grasp of defensive and offensive magic alike is probably unparalleled amongst the students in Hogwarts, but Cole has you beaten on flexibility, instinct, reflexes, and raw power. A duel, standard wizarding regulations, and I wish to see a variety of spells used. Stretch your abilities to the limit so I may see what you are capable of."

 

Another exchange of glances, and a brief moment of hesitation before Tobias straightened up. "Right, then. We have the space? Ten paces?"

 

The two looked around, moving to the centre of the open space, briefly judging that they had enough distance, then turned to face each other. Tobias' salute was firm and crisp, but Tanith's was sharp, it being obvious she had little patience for the niceties of the test.

 

The ten paces were barely up - and some of the sharper-eyed students watching judged that they weren't at all - before Tanith whipped around, the waving of her wand curt and with the minimal motion necessary. "Expelliarmus!"

 

Tobias only just turned around in time to react to this, wand coming up in a slightly more frantic and desperate gesture to block the incoming hex. "Protego!" Though his wave had been fairly sloppy, Tanith's own spell had been born more of speed than strength, and so was deflected harmlessly by the magical barrier. But almost as soon as he finished the protection spell his wand came down again, his voice clear and crisp. "Torpeo!"

 

Tanith didn't bother with a protection spell, simply threw herself to one side, hitting the floor of the classroom and rolling with the impact to come up on one knee, wand still at the ready. "Stupefy!"

 

This attack was deflected by Tobias much more casually than her first had been, and the other students drew back as they realised the chance of collateral damage, with Tanith's dodging rather than protection, had just gone up. Nobody wanted to be a casualty on the sidelines.

 

Tobias didn't move at this point, wand raised defensively, eyes fixed on her as she rose slowly to her feet. There were several long seconds of silence, neither of them moving, before Tanith's wand moved almost imperceptibly. "Petrificus Totallus!"

 

Again, Tobias' wand came up with a protection spell to deflect it, and then seconds after Tanith threw another hex at him, this one equally artfully knocked aside. This continued for a few more spells, Tanith running through a variety of hexes in an effort to break through his shield, from the precise, piercing ones to the heavy-hitters, and each one was blocked with graceful ease.

 

There was another "Stupefy!" then Tanith's eyes settled on the chair slightly behind Tobias, upside-down on one of the tables pushed to one side. As the spell was deflected, she shifted her aim slightly, before narrowing her eyes and snapping "Proeliatis!"

 

The flicker of Tobias' expression made it clear he knew exactly what she'd done without needing to turn around as the chair behind him unfolded, arms and legs becoming literal arms and legs, the furniture turning humanoid at her transfiguration. Then it crouched down, ready to leap at the back of Tobias' head in a vicious tackle.

 

Although he had to know this, he didn't, as expected, react to it. Instead, his wand came back up, in an offensive stance this time, before it flicked forwards at Tanith. "Locomotor Mortis!"

 

The leg-locker curse hit her at pretty much the same time the chair gave out an inhuman squawk and lunged at him. Both of them went down, Tanith with a stiff thump to the floor, Tobias besieged by angry furniture.

 

Their reactions were also simultaneous, both struggling with unresponsive limbs or ones flailing in the face for a moment, before an "Enervate!" and an "Aboleo!" freed the two of them, the first lifting the hex on Tanith's legs, the second splintering the chair into dozens of pieces, moving no more.

 

Tanith was the first to her feet, bedraggled and looking angry by now, but Tobias stayed on the ground and reacted quicker than she did, redirecting his wand at her as soon as he was done with the chair and bellowing "Silencio!"

 

This time he had been fast enough, the magical energy punching through the half-hearted shield spell she'd barely managed to cast, and Tanith staggered back as it zeroed in on her throat.

 

There was a pause as the observing Slytherins unknowingly held their collective breath, even Tobias pausing to see if his spell had provided the intended effect. Then Tanith pointed her wand at her throat, opened her mouth, and absolutely no sound came out at all.

 

The sigh of released tension was huge, and Tobias looked exhausted as he turned back to Professor Snape. "Silenced and unable to remove it. That would be a win for me," he said, his voice tired but with a broad, victorious grin on his face.

 

Snape nodded slowly, and was about to speak when Tanith acted. For several long seconds she had been standing with her eyes half-closed, lips moving wordlessly, and then all of a sudden she stepped forward, wand outstretched, and a burst of energy silently erupted from the end of her wand.

 

This spell did hit Tobias, knocking him from his feet and to the floor, where he didn't move. The silence continued for a few long seconds as Tanith, obviously still unable to speak, pointed her wand back at her throat, face screwed up with concentration, before eventually a small flash of light burst out the end.

 

Then she turned to Tobias and gave a short, but very audible and victorious laugh. "How's that for a win, Grey? Stunned and..." She ambled over, footing light, voice whimsical, to pluck his wand from his hand. "Disarmed."

 

Snape, whose expression was unreadable, waved his wand lazily at Tobias. "Ennervate," he murmured, and with a slight jerk, Tobias seemed to come back to life, sitting up quickly.

 

"You cheated!" he pointed out with irritation. "You were Silenced and unable to remove it, nor did you take action in the duel for at least six seconds under such impediment - that designated you a non-combatant and thus made me the victor." His normally perfect hair was rumpled as he staggered to his feet, ungraciously snatching back his wand as Tanith offered it back to him.

 

"So my first attempt at casting without vocals failed. The second one succeeded, and incapacitated you. And I had my voice back before the Stunning spell wore off. I could have cast Incarerous on you easily!"

 

"I could have done it to you while you were Silenced! I just didn't want to outright humiliate you when you were at my mercy!" Tobias rolled his eyes. "Chivalry towards you. There's a mistake I should have remembered not to make again..."

 

"Oh, enough!" Snape sounded more irritated than angered as he threw his hands into the air. "You are both hitting very much on the crux of the matter: At what point is a fight over? I did instruct you to abide by the rules of a duel, and so from that perspective, strictly speaking, Grey was the victor." But he continued before Tobias' arrogant smirk quite manifested. "However, I am not teaching you how to fight a duel. I am preparing you for a possible war, I am preparing you for a dangerous world. And in those circumstances, enemies will not 'play by the rules', something you should all bear in mind.

 

"Regardless," he carried on, folding his arms across his chest, "this was the sort of display I wanted. Five points to Slytherin, Mister Grey, for a duel well won." Tanith rolled her eyes, though stopped abruptly when Snape's gaze turned to her, as implacable and unreadable as ever. "And... yes. Five points also for Miss Cole, for the first non-verbal casting under stress I have seen from a student since taking this post. Continue to practice, and I am sure you may be able to do so swifter."

 

Then his expression did harden, and Tanith abandoned any resemblance of looking pleased with herself as he glared at her. "Your determination will serve you well in the field, perhaps indeed as an Auror, Cole, but do not disregard the rules and limitations I place upon the practicing of magic in this classroom. I do not make such decisions without reason, and I will not have my authority disregarded."

 

This time, Tanith looked sufficiently cowed, bowing her head a little and nodding. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir," she mumbled, as she and Tobias shuffled back towards the crowd.

 

"More, then. Bletchley, Drake, to the front. Standard duelling rules, I want a clean display. Knowing how to win when limitations have been placed upon you can be as important as victory in an unregulated environment," Snape commanded, and the two Slytherins began.

 

Only the students at the back could hear, over the noise of shouted incantations and whizzing magical energy, a small hiss and whisper of an ongoing argument. Sure enough, right at the back of the crowd, Tobias and Tanith stood with Gabriel in between them, bickering quietly but furiously while Doyle rubbed his temples.

 

"...can't believe you actually cheated..."

 

"...still beat you, didn't I?"

 

"That's not the point! It's a class exercise, everyone saw you, what did you gain?"

 

"The satisfaction of Stunning you when your back was turned?"

 

"Will you both shut up?" Doyle hissed as an interruption, still rubbing his brow. "All I can hear is this high-pitched 'eeeee' noise whenever Tanith's talking, and with Tobias it's just this dull buzzing and I've got one bitch of a headache!"

 

The two exchanged glances, before Tanith tossed her head, grabbed Gabriel by the shoulders, and forcibly swapped places with him. "And you think you're so high-and-mighty, not finishing me off when I'm down?" she continued, hardly missing a beat.

 

"I did say it was meant to be a touch of courtesy, courtesy I suppose you don't really deserve - and have shown to not appreciate before," Tobias hissed back, not without a good degree of venom.

 

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

 

"...I've really got a headache."

 

"It means that every time I'm nice to you, I get my head bitten off!"

 

"Like when?"

 

"Oh, about two years ago, that little thing called a Yule -"

 

"I think I'm going to be sick," Gabriel interrupted. He wasn't - but he had been swaying slightly, and the moment the announcement was made, he dropped like a stone. His shoulder bounced off Tanith's knee and his head landed Tobias' foot before he hit the ground, where he lay very, very still.

 

Everyone’s immediate reaction was to do nothing but turn and stare at the fallen student, confused into inactivity. Except for Snape, who swept down through the ranks of the students and, with a whip of his wand, levitated Gabriel’s prone body off the floor.

 

“Everyone back!” he snapped, jerking the masses into activity as they finally drew away and stared in horror at their fallen classmate. “Does anyone know what’s wrong with him?”

 

“He, uh… he…” Tobias just stammered as his gaze remained fixed on Gabriel, unable to get a sentence out until Tanith stepped in.

 

“He was complaining of a headache. But he’s been complaining of one for weeks now, sir…”

 

“Weeks.” Snape looked unimpressed. “And he hasn’t been to Madam Pomfrey’s?”

 

“He said he’d be fine, sir…” Tanith explained weakly.

 

“Yes, he certainly looks it,” the head of their House replied cuttingly. “I can see your care for your classmate is excellent. Will somebody get him to the Hospital Wing? I still have a lesson to run.”

 

Nobody was really surprised when Cal stepped forwards, expression grim. “I’ll take him, sir,” he offered, waving a wand at Gabriel and muttering “Mobilicorpus” under his breath, establishing his own magical hold on the other without even waiting for Snape’s permission.

 

“Uh… I should go with…”

 

Snape cut Tobias off even before he’d properly found his voice again. “I am sure Mister Brynmor is quite capable of transporting a student a few floors up, Mister Grey, and I would be loath for even more students to miss this lesson. Just make sure you come back promptly, Mister Brynmor.”

 

“Right you are, sir,” Cal replied, backing off towards the door, tugging the still-twitching shape of Gabriel behind him, and not sounding as if he had the slightest inclination to do as he’d just agreed.

 

 

 

* * * * * * * *

 

 

Darkness. Pain. Nothingness.

 

Wait…

 

Voices…

 

Echoing in the back of his mind they charged forth, numerous and indistinguishable. Though they seemed to chant the same thing, they were not in time, and so the words ran over each other, repeating and melding together to the point where he could barely make out what was said, let alone what was meant…

 

...falls the shadow. All will play their part. All will fight. Live. Die. All will choose. The end is promised. The beginning is not. All will choose. A thousand choices of a thousand people. Guide the few.

 

...the Scion shall lose their warmth, lose their faith, and fall embroiled in the battle of nature against nurture...

 

...the Champion shall lose their way, lose their heart, and only through vigilance keep their conscience...

 

...the Disciple shall lose their mind, lose their hope, and be tempted by dark with the promise of its demise...

 

...choices entwined, destinies interwoven to decide not the fate of all but the hope of the future; that the promised end to darkness will bring with it a light bright enough to outshine the shadow of the past and end the cycle...

 

...end the cycle...

 

...end the cycle...

 

Then there was light, and Gabriel sat bolt upright to find himself in a bed in the well-illuminated Hospital Wing, a cold sweat across his forehead that did not seem at all matched with the warmth of the room, and Cal Brynmor seated at the foot of the bed looking rather wide-eyed.

 

“Gabe! How’re you… feeling?” His burly classmate looked actually rather nervous, wringing his hands together as he watched him like a hawk ready to take flight at the slightest provocation.

 

“…like I really need a drink. What happened?” Gabriel wiped his brow and blinked mugginess from his head as Cal stood to pour him a glass of water from the jug. “All I remember is Tobias and Tanith bitching at each other, then it all going black.”

 

“They have that affect sometimes,” Cal said with forced cheer, handing him the glass and returning to his seat. “And… yeah. You just keeled over in class. Brought you up here. You’ve been out about an hour… started muttering for last fifteen minutes.”

 

Gabriel frowned, the memory of the echoing voices rising to the front of his mind, initially suppressed by the surprise of his awakening. “Muttering, huh? Anything interesting?” He hid his expression behind a large gulp of the drink as Cal shook his head.

 

“Couldn’t hear you. Sounded like one hell of a bad dream.” He tilted his head at his friend slightly, brow still furrowed. “Apart from thirsty, uh… how are you feeling? Physically, I mean? Still got that headache?”

 

There was a pause as Gabriel blinked and realised, with a small start, that there was no headache that had been plaguing him for weeks. It was as if the collapse, or the voices, had realised a large dose of pent-up pressure behind his eyes, and with the water down him he was beginning to feel as if there had been nothing wrong in the first place. “Actually okay,” he admitted. “A little groggy. What did Madam Pomfrey say was wrong with me?”

 

Cal gave a slight shrug. “I don’t think even she knew. She said something about a build up of magical energies surrounding you. Apparently it comes as a result of too much magic pouring through you, like if you’ve been actually casting a bit too much for too long a period. She did say you needed to stop practicing charms after class, though, and work a bit more on theory instead if you were so desperate in your homework.”

 

“Heh, yeah, that must be it.” Gabriel forced a chuckle, again wiping his sweaty forehead. “I don’t have to stay here, do I? Not long, anyway? It’s Transfigurations this afternoon…”

 

“And you’re oh-so-eager for that. She wants you to stick around until the end of the day, maybe overnight. It’ll be fine, I’ll tell McGonagall. The others should be up to see you at lunchtime, anyway,” Cal said firmly.

 

“Lunchtime? So aren’t you supposed to be back in Defence?” Gabriel pointed out accusingly, raising an eyebrow at his friend.

 

“What, and leave you to mumble like a madman on your own? I can handle Snape. He’s been happier with Tobias as his chew-toy lately anyway.” He patted Gabriel on the shin firmly, smirking a too-broad smirk. “Besides, you know me. Any chance to get out of lessons. You keeling over and frothing and all was just a handy excuse for me to wriggle out of the boredom. That said, I’m not sure I blame you for passing out, what with those two in either ear…”

 

Gabriel snorted with amusement and agreement. “You’d think they’d be over it all by now, or have sorted it out one way or another instead of still bitching at each other. How come you didn’t kill yourself being stuck with them on holiday?”

 

“It wasn’t so bad. Tobias was more distracted by griping over O’Neal getting the Head Boy job, and Tanith had just had a row with her Dad so was preoccupied with that, and besides, the trip got cut short anyway…” Cal’s voice trailed off, and he just shook his head and shrugged.

 

“Oh, yes, the infamous camping trip where nobody tells me jack about what happened,” Gabriel replied bitterly. “You know I’d have come along if I’d not had the family holiday. Seems like I missed out on some sort of excitement.”

 

Cal looked at the floor, frowning. “It wasn’t very much at all,” he said, giving another shrug.

 

“It coincided with that damn incident of Death Eaters running around Derbyshire and the werewolves in the Peak District going absolutely mad. If it had all ‘passed you by’ I’d have never heard the end of it about just how lucky you three were,” Gabriel pointed out. “Do we just not communicate about things any more?”

 

“Apparently not,” Cal conceded, glancing back up. “We got split up, there was a Displacement Field and I tried to Apparate out before I realised it was up. Tobias and Tanith… well… they ran right into one of the Death Eaters who was behind the whole ritual that got the werewolves angry in the first place. Only got away with sheer luck and some Auror or someone coming to the rescue.”

 

Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “Wow. I feel considerably out of the loop. Do you know who the Death Eater was?”

 

Cal grimaced, not meeting his friend’s eye. “Yeah. Not that they told me. Turned out that they ran into one Thanatos Brynmor.”

 

There was a stiff pause at this, before Gabriel let out a low whistle. “Huh. That… that sucks. Not to mention being one hell of a coincidence.” He tilted his head at his friend slightly. “So what happened to you, then?”

 

“Me? Oh, I… I got Displaced fairly near the edge of the field, and almost on top of the Auror camp that was set up there. Told them where we’d been camping so they could send someone in to find them.” Cal gave a very firm shrug. “That’s all.”

 

Gabriel narrowed his eyes at him. “You’re an awful liar, Caldwyn,” he pointed out, unconvinced.

 

“Am I? Then it’s just as well Madam Pomfrey’s heading this way with a Sleeping Draught that’s got your name of it, isn’t it, and that I should head back to Defence classes…”

 

Unfortunately for both of them, though, they were both right, and as Gabriel drifted off to sleep after not protesting against the draught and Cal headed back off to class, he let his thoughts wander. To the whispers of before, trying to capture their words again in his head and in his memories, and to the wilds of Derbyshire, and somehow it felt that pieces to both puzzles lay in the same place.

Chapter 12: The Way We Were
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Chapter 11: The Way We Were



Life, Tobias reflected with a spring in his step, was pretty good. September had come and gone, and they were due a Hogsmeade trip this weekend. Classes were proceeding comfortably, he’d sent off a variety of job applications and had been collecting references from his teachers, and was anticipating some interviews with the Ministry some time around or after Christmas. Gabriel’s funny turn seemed to have been nothing, and he’d ceased even commenting about his headaches since – not to mention, had stopped even rubbing at his temples or giving other physical signs. Cal had also stopped acting so strangely, his mood significantly increased, though he still seemed to be keeping strange hours with odd personal correspondence, and occasionally stared off into the distance in the direction of the Ravenclaw table during mealtimes. And Tanith was…

 

Well, she was Tanith. Spending more time with Ariane and Melanie, perhaps, a little cooler towards him in public, but still very much Tanith. These days, much more interested in her studies than before, and he was relishing the fact that one of his good friends was now also someone he could engage in academic discussion, an avenue that had been previously rather cut off to him.

 

All in all, life was good. Which was why the last thing he’d expected, wandering down the corridor on a late Tuesday evening after a productive session of research in the library on his Arithmancy paper, was to run into Annie MacKenzie coming down towards him from the opposite end of the corridor.

 

Had he thought about it, rather than just frozen in abject terror, clutching at his books on protective wards, he would have realised it wasn’t that unlikely an occurrence. After all, the fact that they’d hardly come face to face with one another in several weeks was a more peculiar issue, and considering his route back to the common room was taking him along the direct path back to the Gryffindor Tower from the Great Hall, he probably should have expected it.

 

But he hadn’t, and by the time his gaze had darted down the corridor in search of a valid escape route – the window was the only tantalising option there – she had spotted him, and was bee-lining in his direction. At this point, it would probably be just rude to hurl himself out of the third floor.

 

“Annie!” he croaked in greeting, still clutching at his books a little, as if they might protect him.

 

“Toby.” She came to a halt a few feet away, waving and smiling a little sheepishly. He eyed the distance between them hawkishly, not sure if he would freeze entirely or run like the wind should she attempt to close it. Again.

 

“How… how are you? Haven’t seen you around much lately. Heh.” There it was, that nervous chuckle that was the bane of his existence whenever he tried to be casual. Or the blush that came at a moment’s notice if he was moderately uncomfortable, even – especially – when he was trying to hide it. Or, in fact, the many things which made him a moderately inept liar in the face of friends.

 

Or more.

 

“I’ve been, uh… alright. Yeah. You?” Annie tilted her head to one side slightly as she looked at him, playing with a stray lock of reddish-brown hair. She always used to do that when she was nervous, he noted with detached interest. Was it a habit that had changed to become a prelude to eating men alive?

 

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve been good. Just busy with work. Arithmancy project, and all that. Got a big paper this year, any subject we want. I’ve chosen to do it on protective wards, so I’m trying to get Professor Vector to give me any information she can on the wards around Hogwarts… though these days that’s considered sensitive information.” He frowned, as if important security in the face of war was entirely unreasonable compared to his academic interest.

 

She laughed, and though it was nervous it was also genuine. “Silly war getting in your way?”

 

“As always.” He grinned his own slightly silly grin, which died within a few seconds as silence fell upon them and he found himself neither wishing to flee nor poke the elephant in the corner. Unfortunately, his mind wasn’t summoning any other options right then.

 

“Anyway, um… I’m glad I ran into you, Toby,” Annie continued, seeming to steel herself for a few seconds before she spoke. “I, uh… guess we didn’t really talk much about last time we, um…”

 

“Didn’t really talk at all, I suppose,” Tobias corrected, his gaze fixed somewhere around her left ear. “Don’t worry yourself about it, we don’t need to, um, talk about it. These things just happen.” He wondered dimly if these things did ‘just happen’ – perhaps there was an epidemic of students falling onto each others’ lips that he’d been previously unaware of.

 

A brief, vicious part of his psyche threw the image of Tanith falling onto Bletchley to the forefront of his mind, and he dismissed it quickly with a scowl.

 

Annie, however, seemed to take this scowl as disapproval, and shrank back slightly. “Okay, well… um, I guess we can just leave it at that. I didn’t want to… hurt or upset you or anything, but if you want to forget it ever happened…”

 

Tobias paused, shaking his head a little. “What? Um, no… I mean… you seem like you’ve got something to say,” he said at last, the words finally coming to him. Also, pressing her to speak had to be less dangerous, right?

 

Right?

 

“Yeah. That’s… kind of why I came looking for you,” Annie agreed, nodding slowly. “I wanted to say two things. First, to, uh, apologise for just, uh, snogging you and then running off.” This was said to his right shoe, which was fine because he was still staring intently at her earlobe. “That was, um, rude of me. I shouldn’t have just jumped at you like that, and I certainly shouldn’t have just run away afterwards.”

 

“Um. Don’t worry about it?” Tobias tried hesitantly.

 

“The second thing is a, ah, explanation. Which I guess you’ve been wondering about,” Annie continued hesitantly.

 

“Actually, my brain hasn’t quite recovered from the ‘huh’ state over the whole thing,” Tobias confessed with a candour that made him feel a little less uncomfortable.

 

“Really. That good, then?” Annie said, the forced levity audible in her voice, but it dropped the moment she noticed his ears turning slightly pink. She cleared her throat firmly. “Anyway. An explanation. Which you deserve. Yes.”

 

“Listening. Go on.” Tobias forced himself to smile at her ear.

 

“I’ve had a little bit of a problem lately. Sort of… over the summer. And made worse at the beginning of the year,” Annie told his shoe. “Which was that I, ah… kept second guessing myself. About breaking up with you, I mean. Kept wondering if it was the right thing to do, or if I’d just been an outrageous bitch to you over the whole thing, and if I’d actually, uh… wanted to.”

 

Tobias said nothing to this, though did manage to sneak a look at her face. She was frowning, obviously forcing herself through every word, and in each pause stopped to chew thoughtfully on her lower lip in a habit he’d always found endearing.

 

“So I talked to the girls,” Annie continued, barely audible over his racing heartbeat. “And they said it could have been just… a phase. I mean, you seem to have become ‘most eligible bachelor’ in Hogwarts since making Head Boy… I might have just been getting swept along. In fact, we figured I probably was.” She nodded to herself, then grimaced. “So me, ah, jumping you that day was meant to be… well, me getting you out of my system. One last hurrah so I could just… get over you.”

 

Tobias looked faintly confused. “I’m not sure how…”

 

“You’re a bloke, Toby, you’re going to just have to take my crazy female logic on faith here,” Annie told him unhappily. “I snog you. I realise you’re not all that. I get over you. Simple, no?”

 

“Uh, very simple, yeah. So I’m glad we’ve cleared that up…” This time, Tobias’ legs did cooperate with him, and he went to walk past her, the desire for freedom from this discomfort overcoming all ideals of good conduct. His mother would have been so disappointed.

 

…perhaps his mother wasn’t the best person to think about while he was stuck in an uncomfortable and intense conversation with a girl he’d…

 

“That’s not all,” Annie continued miserably, reaching out to grab him by the elbow. Her touch was electric, and he almost jumped out of his skin as he turned back around to face her, expression that of a deer in the headlights. “It didn’t really… work. The getting over you bit, I mean. The realising you’re not all that?”

 

The conversation was making his head spin. He wanted to interrogate her effectively to extract her exact purpose, her exact intent; to find out precisely what she was going on about so he could rationally judge what to do from then. Instead, he just about managed an eloquent “Wha?”

 

Annie sighed, scrubbing her face with her hands. “It didn’t, um, get you out of my system. If anything it got you, um, more in there. Made me realise that I was an idiot to break up with you over such a stupid, stupid, selfish thing.”

 

His gaze dropped immediately, as if hers was a Medusa stare that would imprison him. Not that the reluctance of his feet to move again meant that it would have made much difference if she were such a mythical beast. “It was a… stupid thing. But I, uh, understand why you did it? You can’t have been having a good time of things?”

 

Why was he making excuses for her? She’d dumped him because he was a Slytherin and she was a Gryffindor and she’d been getting grief over it from idiots. He’d never made such an important decision based upon what others thought; his refusal to join the Inquisitorial Squad had been testament to this.

 

“Still doesn’t excuse it.” Annie shook her head. “So I don’t really expect you to… forgive me. But I’d like you to. Because I am sorry. For what it’s worth.” She paused, taking a deep breath. “And what I’d really like… what I’d want, I mean… what would be nice…” Another halt, another deep breath with a slight catch in it, steeling herself visibly. “I’d like to give us another chance. If you want, I mean.”

 

He stared at her, almost literally stunned into silence. This was the last thing he’d expected – conflicted feelings, sure, some Machiavellian scheme to play with his emotions, quite likely. But actual… regret to the point of wanting him again? That hadn’t been on the cards. That was completely…

 

“Uh… Toby?” She waved a hand in front of his face slightly, and he flinched. “Sorry. You just… stared off into space for a while there. Did you, uh, hear me?”

 

“What? Yes, I heard…” Tobias paused, rubbing his eyes. “It’s been a long day. I, uh… I need to think about this? If you don’t mind? It’s sort of sudden, and I need to… think about this?” He found he was repeating himself, and promptly stopped talking to save his sanity.

 

Annie nodded slowly. “Of course. Take as long as you want. I don’t expect you to… say yes. Or even say anything right away. But… if you want to think about it I can give you the time to…?”

 

“Good. Yeah. It’s not a ‘no’. I just need to… think about this.” He nodded very firmly, then glanced down the corridor. His legs felt as if they might just cooperate again. “I should get going. Doesn’t do for a Head Boy to be wandering the corridors too late at night when I don’t have patrol duty.” He waggled a finger at her, feeling a little light-headed. “And you, Miss MacKenzie, should be back in the Gryffindor Tower by now.”

 

She grinned, and he felt the light-headedness increasing. “Of course, Mister Grey. How remiss of me. I shall head back right away,” she assured him, tone going to one of mock-formality, the smile turning down to only a hint around the edges of a falsely serious expression.

 

He nodded nervously. “Well. I’ll… see you soon. We’ll talk… soon,” he assured her, and thought she gave a reply he didn’t quite hear it over the roaring in his ears as he strode down the corridor towards home.

 

The entire trip was something of a blur, clutching his books to him and replaying the past few minutes in his head, the events and words becoming more and more jumbled every time they went around until he wasn’t sure up was down, let alone whether Annie had said what he thought she’d said.

 

He needed someone to talk to. Someone to work this all through with. Like Cal, if he wasn’t so crazy, or Gabe, if he wasn’t so crazy, or…

 

…Tanith. Tanith, who was sprawled on a sofa in the common room as he entered the dungeon, Tanith who had a large pile of Transfigurations reference scrolls littered around the table in front of her and the seat next to her, Tanith, who was… asleep. Sound asleep, halfway through homework.

 

The conversation he’d just had flew entirely out of his thoughts as he padded through the abandoned common room towards her, setting his books carefully down on the table and moving some scrolls from the seat beside her so he could sit down, doing his best to not make any noise.

 

She seemed oblivious to the world as he eased himself onto the sofa, so he snuck a glance at the paperwork she’d been going through. Principles of partial self-Transfiguration… complicated, advanced theory that even he had only vaguely begun to delve into, and yet again Tobias had to remind himself that Tanith was no fool; had never been a fool, just disinterested in academia. That was, until she’d decided she wanted to be an Auror. Then there had been nothing she would not work at to reach her goal.

 

He wasn’t sure exactly when down the line it had been that she’d decided she wanted to be an Auror. Obviously some time before they’d selected their NEWT subjects, unless she’d just been lucky on that count. Perhaps in the careers discussions? That would have been their fifth year, so it was possible… most of what she’d done that year after the Yule Ball was something of a mystery to him, so embarrassed he had been by the evening that he’d turned completely insular from her. A summer away had cleared heads, and then they’d come back to… stability.

 

Or, at least, acting as if nothing had happened. Was that the same thing?

 

She stirred a little, making a small growl of contentment in the back of his throat that made him suppress a chuckle as he set down the scrolls he’d been flicking through, and shifted to face her.

 

Her hair was long and dark, returned to that state only recently after a short-lived period of rebellion which had seen it short, blonde, and spiky – he had a feeling her parents had disapproved. So back it was to basics, back to how she had been when he’d first met her. Older, of course, her features rather more severe as she’d grown.

 

Though it had been some time since Tobias had allowed himself to reflect on Tanith’s looks, even at the height of his infatuation he would have never expressed her to be… pretty. Certainly not conventionally; if there was a beauty, it was a sharp beauty – the rest of the appeal lay in her manner, in her attitude. Her confidence and her determined demeanour, though both were obviously faded while she slept.

 

And yet there was still something there, something he could not put his finger on…

 

Again a stir, again that slight purring growl of satisfaction, and this time Tanith’s dark eyes flickered open to lock onto him. There was a moment as she glanced about, seemingly briefly startled, but she settled quickly and didn’t move. “Huh. Must have dropped off.”

 

“Transfiguration homework that boring?” Tobias asked wryly, not moving away and propping his head up with a hand, elbow resting on the back of the sofa.

 

“All about what to do if I want to turn my arms into bats’ wings… very exciting… where’d everyone go?” She was audibly groggy, and seemed still disinclined to budge.

 

“It is half eleven,” Tobias told her, after consulting his watch and conceding his return to the dungeon had probably not been as direct as he might have liked. “Most have gone to bed, I guess.”

 

“They didn’t wake me? Bastards,” Tanith observed, resting her head back on the couch. “What’s got you up at this time, anyway?”

 

He smiled slightly. “Library work,” he replied, the omission not even conscious, his thoughts a thousand miles away from Annie MacKenzie. “Arithmancy research.”

 

She made a face, then giggled. “The fun stuff.”

 

Tobias stared at her for a few seconds. Never before would he have thought that Tanith Cole would ever giggle. “No, boring stuff. So I came back here.”

 

“To wake me up, hmm.” One eyebrow flickered up, the hint of a smile playing about her lips.

 

“You woke yourself up. I was just…” Tobias paused as he realised that there was a high chance he’d just wandered into a trap.

 

“Watching me sleep, then. Perv.” A brief snort of amusement.

 

“Tidying up your mess, actually,” he replied with a mock-haughty expression, gesturing to the papers she’d strewn around. He hadn’t even realised that he’d tidied up after her when he’d sifted through her work; that was a worrying reflection on his habits.

 

“Mmm. Then let me sleep. Comfy here.” Tanith lay back on the couch again, nestling herself a little between cushions.

 

Tobias gave a short chuckle. “Oh, no. I’m not having you complaining to me tomorrow about how you messed up your back because you slept on the couch. Come on. Up, you.”

 

“Don’t wanna.” She wore half a smile as she waved an arm weakly at him. It contacted his shoulder and stayed there, her seeming to not have the energy to remove it.

 

“Come on.” He gave her a look.

 

“What are you going to do, carry me? That’d work so well…” The hand on his shoulder played along towards his neck, her fingers stroking at the strands of hair they could reach. “…and is it me, or has your hair got longer?”

 

“It’s hair. It grows,” Tobias replied, though not without amusement. “Did you have some of that bootleg firewhiskey Pucey was waving around, or something?”

 

“I mean, you usually keep it all short… kinda severe… it’s getting wavy these days. Sorta long. I like it.” She gave a short, quiet chuckle. “And no. Just sleepy. That against the rules? Mister Head Boy going to dock me points?”

 

“Mister Head Boy is going to encourage you to go to your own bed so Mister Head Boy doesn’t have to put up with one of his prefects being cranky as hell in the morning,” Tobias told her with a wry grin.

 

“Ugh, fine.” Her surrender was a little quicker than anticipated, though, and Tobias hardly moved or reacted at all as she sat up.

 

This move thus brought their heads very close together. So close, in fact, that they did bump noses, and though Tanith bounced back very briefly, it wasn’t for long, and as realisation kicked in for both of them, through the confusion and the fatigue, they became keenly aware that their faces – and lips, couldn’t forget lips – were mere centimetres apart.

 

There was a long silence for a few seconds, until Tobias drew a shaky breath. “…Tanith?”

 

“Shh. Don’t.” It was a slightly more curt instruction than might have been anticipated, for although Tanith didn’t move, she was wearing an expression of deep concentration and contemplation.

 

He froze, as ever unsure of what to do, and though again Annie MacKenzie was nowhere near his thoughts, she had still addled them sufficiently for one evening. “Don’t… what?”

 

Then there was the slight head tilt as they both leaned forwards, Tanith having just enough time to breathe “Think,” as an answer as their lips approached…

 

…then a sound crept just into the edge of Tobias’ hearing; a dull sobbing noise coming from the direction of the dormitory, and his head snapped in its direction so sharply that Tanith almost bashed into his ear.

 

“Did you hear that?” he asked sharply, a frown on his face as his eyes darted about the corner of the common room and towards the stairways to the dormitories.

 

“…yeah. Like that. That was the kind of thinking I meant,” Tanith muttered to herself, before pulling away and straightening up, her frown deep. “What, Grey? I didn’t hear anything.”

 

He didn’t notice the strong tone of irritation as he stood up. “I thought I heard someone crying. From over there. Can’t you hear it?” He waved a hand towards the stairway.

 

Tanith gave a deep sigh. It was almost audible that she was hanging onto a final shred of self-control. “No. No, I can’t. And if you’re right, then it’s coming from the boys’ dorm.” She stood up, gathering her books and scrolls. “I’m going to bed.”

 

Tobias continued to squint towards the stairway until Tanith passed him, sweeping towards her own dormitory. “No, damn, wait… Tanith, hang on…!” He turned towards her desperately, realisation only just sinking in of what had happened and what he’d done.

 

“Good night, Grey,” Tanith said firmly, before disappearing into the gloom.

 

He regarded the empty room for a long moment, thoughts scrambling together from all corners of his awareness, and the situation he had landed himself in – not to mention the situation he had just blown – crept into his mind.

 

“Bugger,” he declared, and deemed it to be an acceptably accurate judgement of his circumstances.

 

Then he heard that sobbing noise again, and his attention was distracted once more with the inkling that there might be someone who had more genuine troubles than his women woes. He took a few seconds to clear his head of the thoughts bouncing around inside, echoing and distracting as they were, before he padded over towards the stairway to the boys’ dormitories, and the sound of the sobbing.

 

In the gloom only one floor up, he found the source sitting on the stairs – a first year, wrapped in an over-sized dressing gown that his mother probably assumed he would ‘grow into’, sniffling away in obvious distress. But Tobias’ approach was heard as he headed up the stairs, and the small boy sat upright with a small start.

 

“Uh… uh… sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to bother you, sir… I’ll just be heading to bed.”

 

The first year made to stand up, but Tobias bounded up the steps, taking them two at a time, to draw level with the boy and putting a hand on his shoulder, gently urging him to sit down. “No, no bother,” he insisted as he, too, perched himself on one of the seats. “It’s Jeremy, isn’t it?”

 

The first year gave a small, tearful nod. “Y-Yes, sir. Jeremy Allan.”

 

Tobias smiled slightly, softly. “You don’t need to call me ‘sir’. I’m not a Professor.”

 

“B-but you’re the Head Boy.” Jeremy looked distinctly confused by this decree. “You’re… important.”

 

“So they keep telling me,” Tobias murmured to himself, then shook his head a little. “And I’m… not a sir. Just Tobias. Or Toby.”

 

“Alright, uh… Toby.” Jeremy nodded briefly with a slight frown, then sniffed quietly.

 

“As for important, right now you seem a lot more important than me.” He patted the young boy on the shoulder. “What’s up?”

 

“…nothing. I’m fine.” It was an automatic reaction, so in-built and harsh that Tobias wondered if this had been born already from Hogwarts or if this spoke of more problems in the lad’s past. But it also crumbled as quickly as it had appeared, and Jeremy lowered his head, suppressing another sniff. “You, uh… do you like it here, Toby?”

 

The inkling of a clue began to enter Tobias’ head. “Where here? Hogwarts? …Slytherin House?”

 

“…Slytherin,” the boy confessed, cringing a little. “I mean… I know it’s got great history! And some of the greatest wizards have come from Slytherin House! It’s just… my mum was a Gryffindor. My dad was a Hufflepuff. I thought I’d be in one of those! And when I sent them the letter telling them I was in Slytherin, they…”

 

Tobias didn’t say anything as Jeremy’s voice trailed off, though he nodded to himself briefly as his guess was turning out to be right. Then Jeremy continued, falteringly. “…they said they were proud. Happy for me. All that. But my big sister’s a Hufflepuff, and I remember when they got the news in the post a few years back… my dad was so proud. Kept saying she was just like him. I wanted to make them happy like that.”

 

“Oh, Jeremy…” Tobias shook his head, smiling very softly and making sure the boy couldn’t see it. “That’s just parents stuff. They’ll love you no matter what, and it doesn’t really matter to them what house you’re in. Just you see. And when you’re miles ahead of your big sister because we taught you how to get by in the world, they’ll be sitting around boasting of how their son’s a Slytherin.”

 

He wished he could believe it. Perhaps if the boy had been a Ravenclaw, sure, but…

 

“It’s… it’s not just that,” Jeremy continued falteringly, and Tobias’ stomach tightened as he realised where this was going. “I don’t have any friends here… I met a few guys on the train I thought were pretty cool, but all three of them became Gryffindors. Now they won’t even talk to me. Not in classes, not in the corridors, not at lunch… like I don’t even exist.”

 

Tobias chewed on his lower lip. “You’re much better off making friends in your own House, Jeremy, it’s just easier…”

 

“That’s what some of the boys in my year said. And some of the older ones. Only not like that… they just said people in other Houses weren’t worth talking to.” Jeremy looked up tearfully. “But… they were fun. And everyone else in my year keeps on going on about ‘right friends’ and stuff and… I don’t really know what they’re going on about.”

 

‘Right friends’? They’re eleven. Jesus Christ… Tobias glanced up, sighing quietly to himself as he looked over at the fireplace just visible through the doorway to the common room. They keep starting this crap earlier and earlier. At least the kid’s a half-blood or more, or they’d have eaten him alive by now.

 

“And some of the bigger kids in the other houses, especially Gryffindor, call me names… say that I’m a little Death Eater, that they’re going to hex all the bad out of me…” Jeremy’s voice shook slightly, and it was only because he dropped his gaze again that he didn’t see the tightening of Tobias’ jaw, the clenching of his fist.

 

“Which bigger kids?” Tobias asked tersely, his voice tight.

 

“I… I don’t know.” Jeremy shrugged. “Just bigger kids. Fifth years? Sixth?” Tobias remembered his first year, when pretty much anyone over the age of fourteen was monstrously huge, especially in the first month. “I… I don’t want them to hurt me…”

 

“Listen, Jeremy.” Tobias shifted around, moving down a few steps so he was in front of Jeremy and turning to face him. “They’re not going to hurt you. They’re bullies who are just all talk, no trousers. They’re not going to do anything to you, so you can just ignore them and keep walking.” His voice was firm, perhaps too firm, and if he hadn’t been clouded by his own anger he might have noticed that his own determination was starting to make the boy even more uneasy. “As for your friends, you’ll find some. Just talk to the others in your year – yes, even the girls – and… be yourself. Tell them who you are. Talk to them about things you enjoy. About Quidditch, and Gobstones, and… and when they start talking about what their daddy does or what connections they have, ask them for a game of Exploding Snap!”

 

Why the hell do they grow up so quickly? Why is everyone so eager for this war that they’re picking side already?

 

Why are we training our kids to fight our wars?

 

Jeremy looked a little lost and confused. “Can’t I… I was wondering… can’t you talk to Professor Dumbledore and get me… re-Sorted? I could be a Hufflepuff, I work hard, and I’m good to my friends, and…”

 

“So am I, Jeremy.” Tobias hunched down to meet the boy’s gaze. “I’m the top pupil in my year – probably top pupil in the school. But I’m not a Ravenclaw. I’ll do anything for my friends. But I’m not a Hufflepuff. And I’ve stood up to all kinds of nasty types for what I believe in – hell, I’ve faced off against a Death Eater. But I’m not a Gryffindor.

 

“I want to get far in life, and I know I’m good enough to. I want the world to be a better place, and I want to be the one who makes it so. I want the very best for everyone I care about, and I will do whatever it takes so they have it. That’s what makes me a Slytherin.

 

“And you’ve got that too, Jeremy, or you wouldn’t be here. That drive to succeed. That resourcefulness. That makes you stand apart from all of them – just as they stand apart from each other because of their House traits. They’ll say that being a Slytherin makes you petty and cruel, but you and I know better. Tell yourself that every time they try to hurt you with what you are. And when your fellow Slytherins are just being weird, or petty… be better than them. Show everyone, including them, that being a Slytherin isn’t about being a bad person, and it isn’t about being a better person. It’s about, um… you being… you, and I’ve just rambled excessively at you, haven’t I?” Tobias tilted his head at Jeremy, putting his hands on his hips and wondering where down the line he’d stopped helping the boy and had gone on his own self-righteous rant.

 

Jeremy giggled slightly. “A little. But I… I think I got it.” There was a pause as he thought, and his expression brightened. “Billy’s been collecting Chocolate Frog Cards and I’ve got a load. I’ve probably got a bunch I could swap with him.”

 

And that was all the boy needed, really, Tobias reflected. Friends. Principles could come later. Or, if he was lucky, not at all. They tended to just cause trouble.

 

Like making you go and help a crying boy when there’d been a girl about to kiss you…

 

“There you go, then.” Tobias smiled wryly. “And I’ll tell you what… I have an old Gobstones set I don’t use any more. You can have it, if you want. On loan, for the year. So you and your friends don’t get bored.”

 

“Really, sir? I mean, uh, Toby?”

 

“Only if you get yourself to bed right now. You’re going to be tired as anything in the morning, and if you tell Professor Snape or Professor McGonagall that you were up late at night talking to me, then they’ll have my guts for garters…”

Chapter 13: The Chain of Command
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Chapter 12: The Chains of Command

 

The first time he'd been up these stairs, it had been with trepidation and anxiety. Now, Tobias approached the headmaster's office with firm steps of determination and, in the background, a small simmering flame of anger.

 

So when he knocked on the door, he hardly waited for the summoning before pushing it open and striding in, back straight, eyes fixed in the direction of the desk where Professor Dumbledore sat with a mild, curious expression.

 

"Mister Grey. Please, have a seat," the headmaster offered politely, gesturing forwards with his good hand towards the comfortable armchair opposite him, the only hint of confusion given being his slightly raised eyebrows, and the slight tilt of his head.

 

"Professor." Tobias nodded stiffly, before taking a seat. Whatever his plan, it didn't do to get disagreeable with the headmaster. "Thank you for seeing me, sir."

 

"Professor Snape seemed to think that you were quite determined to have this conversation. I am sorry I have not been able to make time for an appointment any sooner." Much to Tobias' surprise, Dumbledore sounded legitimately apologetic.

 

"When I requested the meeting on Wednesday I didn't think it would be right away. Thanks for being able to make it by the end of the week," he replied honestly. Lunchtime on a Friday was probably not the easiest time to slot in a meeting with an irritable Head Boy.

 

"Well, it seems like you and I have not discussed perhaps as much as we should have done, Mister Grey," Dumbledore said with a slight nod.

 

"Yes... and that is partly what I wish to discuss with you." Tobias leaned forwards a little. The easier bits first, he told himself, just to ease in. "I don't feel as if there has necessarily been much direction given as to... what to do with the school this year. With the prefects."

 

Dumbledore did raise an eyebrow at this. "Direction?"

 

"The school was turned upside-down in your absence last year, sir. Professor Umbridge's policies changed how people acted, how discipline was enforced. What the prefect's roles were." Tobias shrugged. "Since your reinstatement, I can't really say... well, you've had something of a laissez-faire attitude."

 

"It has never been my intention to tread on your toes, or those of Miss Riley, Mister Grey. The two of you were selected because your judgements were trusted to be sound," Dumbledore said, each word sounding careful and deliberate.

 

Tobias frowned. "The prefects are being too soft," he said slowly. "They are uneager to exercise their powers for fear of being compared to the Inquisitorial Squad. They are being lenient, and discipline is suffering."

 

Dumbledore took off his glasses and polished them on the sleeve, a gesture which was familiar to Tobias as he did it himself so often when thinking. "I am sorry to hear that," the headmaster began. "But not to put too fine a point on it, Mister Grey, is that enforcement not your job? Giving warnings and reminders to the prefects... taking their badges if necessary?"

 

The student's expression darkened further. "Theoretically, yes. Which would be easier with the assistance of my counterpart, but Jennifer doesn't want to take harsh action without your permission. Doesn't want us threatening to carry through with things we... can't do."

 

"As I said," Dumbledore replied, "I have been told to trust your judgement by people whose judgement I trust. I will back your decisions."

 

"But not advise me on them. Not tell me how you wish this school to be. Not tell me if you want us to be harsh on discipline in these times of trouble, or if you want us to take the approach of a softer touch to those who do wrong so as not to foster division or resentment," Tobias spat back, irritation blossoming into him despite his own efforts to maintain control.

 

"I have not been here as much this year, or as much last year, as you," Dumbledore confessed. "You know the prefects better than I. You know the pulse of the school better than I."

 

It was, by all accounts, true. Dumbledore didn't seem to have actually been in school quite as much as Tobias would like a headmaster to be, even after one took his laissez-faire attitude out of the equation.

 

It still didn't appease the increasingly angry Slytherin. "Would you have given Connor O'Neal more guidance than this, sir?" he asked tersely at last, hands gripping the armrests tightly.

 

"Excuse me?" Dumbledore raised his eyebrows, looking mildly curious.

 

"O'Neal. Your first option. Would you have given him more guidance, or would you have left him to swing like you're leaving me?" Tobias stood up angrily. "A firmer hand is needed, sir. I've just told you this, and you've basically said that I need to fix it myself. And without the support of my counterpart, because you won't give us your direct backing, won't give us the direct orders." He began to pace, hands clasped behind his back, having something to grip onto keeping him calmer. "So I get to look like the bad guy. I get to be the one who makes threats, takes badges. The job gets done, you still get to play benevolent grandfather, and the Slytherin becomes the bogeyman. Sir..." Tobias turned to face the headmaster, brow furrowed. "Why do you hate Slytherin House, sir?"

 

Dumbledore looked genuinely surprised by this as he straightened up, putting his glasses back on and peering at Tobias over the rim. "Hate?" he echoed quietly, frowning a little. "I think you had best have a seat, Tobias."

 

The anger didn't fade from him, but was settling back into a dull simmering, allowing him to keep control enough to return to his seat, expression still dark.

 

"What has prompted you to believe," Dumbledore began, his voice low and well-measured, "that I hate a quarter of my school?"

 

Tobias took a deep breath, and looked the headmaster in the eye. "The marginalisation of members of the House. The fact that I'm the first Slytherin head boy in nine years, nine years in which every other house has been represented at least once, nine years in which there were plenty of viable Slytherin candidates. The fact that, just over five years ago, you ripped a victory of the House Cup from our hands to give it to your native Gryffindor. The fact that you have never made an effort to encourage an inclusive attitude in the school. The fact that most Slytherin prefects picked are students who are often the least popular with the rest of the school."

 

Dumbledore did appear to be genuinely listening intently, but he raised his good hand slightly at this. "The selection of the prefects is mostly down to the decision of Professor Snape," he pointed out mildly.

 

"Mostly. You get the final say. And Professor Snape is an issue of his own. When there are other staff members who have been members of Slytherin, you have picked the most disliked man in the entire school to be the Head of our House," Tobias continued briskly, hardly missing a beat. "I would wager that there are none that like him, myself included. I do respect him, but even then I am rather in the minority."

 

He leaned back in his chair, the anger beginning to tire, rather than fuel him. It was as if bringing these issues to bear with Dumbledore was draining him, for these issues had burnt within him for years and were, for the first time, being let out in a place they might do something. "So the most public representation of Slytherin House, by your decisions, are the most despicable people we have to offer.

 

"And then we are condemned even further when we show no loyalty to you, or the school. We were criticised and attacked when we joined the Inquisitorial Squad, even though that was presented to Slytherin House as the first chance to do something and not be marginalised," he snapped.

 

"You, yourself, did not join the Inquisitorial Squad," Dumbledore pointed out mildly, eyebrows raised with a slightly curious air still.

 

"Because I disagreed with what it stood for. I would not enforce a totalitarian status quo. And it cost me dearly - not just my prefect badge. By the sheer fact that I was in the same House as those who had joined, I was tarred with the same brush." Tobias' expression darkened further. "And that still continues, sir. Not three nights ago I had to comfort a crying first year because other people in the school hate him because he's a Slytherin. Not for anything he has done. But association. An attitude prevalent across the school... which you have done nothing to fight. Never in my time as a prefect have you told us to stand stronger against House prejudice. Never have you set an example. You've just... done nothing."

 

He fell silent at last, chest heaving after an effort he hadn't realised he'd exerted, and the clear, piercing eyes of Professor Dumbledore that had remained fixed on him throughout his rant finally becoming disconcerting.

 

"These are dire charges indeed that you lay at my door," Dumbledore said, his voice still mellow and level. "And I confess that I cannot defend myself from all of them. But I shall explain as best as I can.

 

"The appointment of Professor Snape was an act of... forgiveness. And not just of the Professor himself. In the aftermath of the war, many were suspicious of Slytherin House, for the number of followers of Lord Voldemort it produced was unquestionable. And at the time, Professor Snape was seen as being a whole-hearted supporter and integral part of the pride of Slytherin House... even its less appealing parts. His appointment was a demonstration that the entire House would not be ostracised, not be cast out, and that its strong heritage would be respected, and accepted. The personal qualities of Professor Snape were, admittedly... irrelevant in my decision." Dumbledore watched him closely as he spoke, blue eyes fixed on blue eyes, as if searching to see if his words were getting through any cracks. "And I am sure you understand how hard it is to remove someone once they are firmly entrenched."

 

Tobias swallowed, his mouth suddenly rather dry. "And if you could, sir, and replace him with someone... better for the House," he began, forcing his voice to not falter. "Would you?"

 

Dumbledore seemed to genuinely consider this, leaning back in his chair. "No," he said at last, shaking his head sadly. "And I regret that my reasons for doing so would not include the betterment of Slytherin House. Though they would still be good reasons.

 

"Which takes me to one of your other accusations - the House Cup in your second year," the headmaster continued, straightening back up after just a beat's consideration. "Yes. I 'stole' Slytherin's victory and gave it to Gryffindor. I will not apologise for this. What had taken place, the occurrence that won those points and which the rumour mill managed to circulate far more effectively than I needed to, was something that I believe needed... congratulating."

 

"Then give Potter a bloody medal if he needs congratulating - don't keep making the rest of us 'mere mortals' looking bad compared to him," Tobias spat, the venom rising up despite himself.

 

Dumbledore shook his head sadly. "I believe that would be counter-productive on... so very many levels. And I think you can understand that yourself without my explaining it. Even if not right now." He sighed, resting his hands in his lap. "I believed that what had happened needed attention drawing to it. Needed to be lauded. And... most significantly, it needed to be made clear that what had happened was so, so much more important than simple school competition."

 

Tobias thought on this for several long moments, allowing the headmaster's words to sink in, fighting off the gut reaction to just reject them out of hand and continue his furious crusade. "Perhaps," he said at last, "but in that case, you shouldn't have given this event, this occurrence so much more important than school competition, to Gryffindor House as their victory."

 

Dumbledore seemed to take this point, eyes going a little distant briefly. "Maybe, there, you are right. But hindsight is a wonderful thing." He leaned forwards. "As for my doing nothing to fight the anti-Slytherin sentiment... that is a more complicated story in some ways, and the very simplest in others. To begin with, this sentiment is a modern beast. Non-existent before the First War. And those who were in school during the war continued to co-exist through it and after it. The troubles have only appeared with... your generation."

 

"Those who never lived through the war," Tobias said, nodding slowly. The anger was still tight in his belly, providing a dull nausea rather than a burning fire, but he tried to set it to one side in favour of reason.

 

"The children of those who did. And were... taught to be suspicious and hateful by those they respected who should have known better. Simple inaccuracies such as the idea that there were no dark wizards from any house other than Slytherin have been repeated so often they are accepted as fact, despite the numerous individuals who prove the claim inaccurate." Dumbledore drummed the fingers of his good hand on the table. "But this appeared, as I said, recently. And if you think back over the last few years of study, I have not been in much of a position to... find the time to do anything about very much at all. My removal from office. The presence of other schools and the tournament. The Chamber of Secrets. I have either not been here, or I have had far more... pressing concerns."

 

Tobias frowned, unable to directly argue with this. "You have the time now," he said weakly.

 

"In all honesty, Mister Grey, I very much do not. Which is why I have not given you the guidance as Head Boy you have wanted." Dumbledore sighed, eyes half-closing. "I have more important things to do than to worry about school politics. And I very much wish that were not the case."

 

Tobias half-rose. "What's more important than your job? The school you run! Unless you're running around trying to pop You-Know-Who himself..."

 

His voice trailed off as Dumbledore said nothing to this, but there was a slight shift of the headmaster's expression that spoke volumes. "Please, Tobias, let us not be prisoners of our fears, and let us call things as they are. His name is Lord Voldemort."

 

Tobias twitched. "Yes, sir, we all know how brave you are," he muttered. "You do know that it makes you sound very arrogant when you say his name and pretend it's so easy?"

 

Dumbledore gave a long, tired sounding sigh. "Mister Grey, please sit down. I believe you and I need to discuss matters."

 

Tobias made a small, slightly irritated sound, but lowered himself back into the armchair. "Six weeks before losing the badge. Not bad," he murmured, more to himself than to Dumbledore.

 

The headmaster gave a small smile that held amusement but certainly also an edge. "That would make things considerably easier, would it not?"

 

He looked up with faint confusion. "Easier?"

 

"If I took the badge from you. Yet another blow landed against Slytherin pride. Yet another sign of favouritism from old, mad Dumbledore. Yet another chance for you to slink off, lick your wounds, and lament the unfairness of a harsh world." Dumbledore folded his arms across his chest, leaning forward. "Am I being too unfair now?"

 

Having Dumbledore being sarcastic at you was unnerving, like being savaged by a puppy. It was still effective, just the brain couldn't quite recognise what was going on. So instead, Tobias just blinked again. "Sir?"

 

"It is true that I selected Connor O'Neal for the Head Boy position over you. Because I believed him to be a fine young man, not because of any disregard I hold for Slytherin. He was fair-minded and just, and I believe would have indeed included the sensible members of your House in decisions, and brought everyone together." Dumbledore shook his head sadly. "It is a shame that you would probably have been too bitter to accept the hand he would have reached out."

 

Tobias was still stunned into silence at this sudden turn of events, and by the time he opened his mouth to protest it was a mechanical reaction in the face of accusation. For as his mind caught up, and he recalled his reaction to O'Neal beating him, he wasn't entirely sure Dumbledore was wrong.

 

"But it was not to be, and Connor O'Neal was one of the earliest casualties of what I fear will be a long and costly war. And so the responsibility falls to you." Dumbledore sighed. "You have the power, now, to bring about the change you are so angry at me for not enacting."

 

"I need the support of the headmaster to-"

 

"You have all of my authority. It is in that badge. The only thing stopping you from doing all that you dream of, Mister Grey, is yourself." Dumbledore leaned forwards, peering at him over the rim of his glasses. "And your anger. And your resentment. I am aware that your House is much maligned, but you know very well that you give as good as you get. You are not innocent victims here. And so your options are simple: To change things for the better, or to continue blaming others for the situation."

 

There was a long silence at this, where Tobias' expression slumped and he sat quietly in his chair for several lengthy moments. Only the ticking of Dumbledore's clock broke the emptiness, and it was with a deep, resigned sigh that Tobias eventually straightened up, nudging his glasses up his nose. "However right you are, sir," he began slowly, "it's not supposed to be me who does all of this. This is still your school." He paused, expression turning wry. "Just as it is not supposed to be I who guides Slytherin House, but Professor Snape also seems to have... more important things to do."

 

Dumbledore looked regretful. "I cannot be everywhere at once, Mister Grey."

 

"No, sir. And I don't doubt that you have matters of paramount importance to attend to," Tobias replied with firm honesty. "Just... in an ideal world, a headmaster would have no duty higher than his school."

 

"Alas, Mister Grey." Dumbledore shook his head sadly. "This is not an ideal world. But you have the power, at least, to try and make this little corner of it so." He stood up, reaching for some parchment and a quill, and beginning to scribble something. "Inform Miss Riley that the two of you have full authority on all disciplinary matters outside of the classroom. If you need to coordinate with staff, Professor McGonagall shall be available for your assistance. I am also making a note permitting you to revoke prefect badges and, with the agreement of heads of Houses, reassign them." He looked up at Tobias. "Are there any other powers you need to enact the changes you want?"

 

Tobias stared for a few long moments, still as stunned as ever before he finally managed to stammer "N-no, sir. Is there... is there anything you wish for me to do?"

 

Dumbledore gave a very small smile. "Ensure that the school remains strong. It seems many students look up to you. You are well liked, and well respected, but tend to hold yourself back and stay out of the way. I would encourage you to... step forwards. For you could be a strong example to many of the pupils here."

 

"Yes... yes, sir." Tobias paused for a moment, then dimly realised that this was tantamount to a dismissal, so he dumbly accepted the parchment Dumbledore accepted, stood, and stumbled towards the door.

 

"Oh, and Mister Grey?" Tobias hesitated in the doorway, hand on the doorknob. Dumbledore was looking over him with that same assessing, hard expression of earlier. "I would appreciate it if you did not accuse me of 'hating' people, least of all my own students, again."

 

"Um... yes, sir." He bobbed his head quickly, frowning with slight confusion, though there was no mistaking the guilt Dumbledore's words prompted. "I'm sorry, sir."

 

Then he left, stumbling down the stairway back into the corridor of school to consult his watch and see lunch was a hair's breadth from finishing, and his Charms class was pending.

 

The slightly numb feeling behind his eyes did begin to abate as he strode down the corridor, legs moving unthinkingly, knowing the route, mind working furiously. Professor Dumbledore had just given him a carte blanche to enact all the change he wanted. To mould the prefects into the ideal group. To work to bring further unity to the school...

 

His mind was swimming so much with such notions that he was hardly aware of it when someone stepped out of a corridor junction in front of him, and it was only their swift reflexes that stopped them colliding.

 

"Shit, Grey!" Tanith swore as she stepped back, him almost knocking a small stack of books out of her arms. "Watch it!"

 

Tobias straightened up, stopping immediately, and turned to face his friend. It was amazing, he reflected suddenly, how they had managed to go several days without talking and yet not making a issue of it. Since Wednesday morning they had been polite and well-measured yet not engaging, finding a bizarre line between being warm and being distant. But there had certainly been a barrier thrown up since Tuesday night, and with his head full of ideals, Tobias decided to make a shove at it.

 

"Sorry," he said genuinely, then fixed her with a look. “I was distracted. Just got out of the meeting with Professor Dumbledore and… well, we had a lot to say.” He frowned slightly, feeling as if he was groping around in the dark for the conversation, or how to get a solid grip on it.

 

“I’m sure you’ll regale me with it all at the next prefect meeting; no need to bore me twice,” Tanith replied briskly, straightening up and looking as if she was about to peel off and head down the corridor.

 

“No, okay…” Tobias hesitated for a second more, then finally jerked into action when she took a step forward, moving sideways so as to physically block her route, stretching an arm out to deny her the chance to skittle past him. “But hang on a second.”

 

There was a long pause as she stared at his chest, for that was about eye level for her, before Tanith took a deep, slightly shaking breath and looked up. “What is it, Grey?” Her voice sounded rather tired and worn.

 

“I… I’ve been thinking. About stuff,” Tobias said elegantly.

 

“Don’t push too hard; we wouldn’t want you breaking those precious brains of yours.” Tanith shook her head. “There’s nothing to think about. Or talk about. Or anything, really.”

 

“Yes, there is.” He looked her in the eye, brow furrowing. “There’s lots to think and talk about. I just had the crap kicked out of me by Dumbledore for not being assertive enough, for… for sitting on the sidelines and letting myself be overlooked, and then blaming everyone else when I don’t get what I want. And he’s right. I’ve done enough of that.”

 

“How very self-assertive of you. But I’m sure you can share the Dumbledore therapy with us all at the next meeting on Monday night. Meanwhile, I’ve got lessons to go to.” Tanith sidestepped briskly, just managing to break past him and beginning to walk down the corridor, pace fast.

 

“Have drinks with me tomorrow,” Tobias called out at last, feeling like something in his chest was bursting as the words slipped past his lips. When he turned to face her he could see that she’d stopped dead in the corridor, still with her back to him, not moving to return but no longer striding away.

 

“At The Three Broomsticks. Twelve o’ clock. I’ve got… things I want to talk about. Things we need to talk about.” He took a deep, slightly shaky breath. “And… it would be… nice.”

 

“I can’t do it.” Tanith turned around to face him slowly, but even as his stomach lurched he saw the expression on her face was not one of rejection. “At twelve, I mean. I’ve got… things to do. But I can do drinks at one.”

 

“One o’ clock. Three Broomsticks,” Tobias repeated, as much for his benefit as hers.

 

“Okay.” There was a heavy pause as both of them seemed slightly confused at how this state of not-unwelcome affairs had just come to pass, before Tanith gave a short, firm nod and turned away again to continue walking down the corridor, adding as a farewell, “You’re buying the butterbeer, though.”

 

Chapter 14: The End of the Beginning
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Chapter 13: The End of the Beginning

 

“You really don’t need to wait with me, Cal,” Tobias said as he sat at a table in The Three Broomsticks, clutching white-knuckled at a mug of butterbeer with one hand, the fingers of the other drumming frantically along the edge of the table. “I know you wanted to get to Zonko’s before we leave.”

 

“Huh? Zonko’s?” In reality, it didn’t look as if Cal was entirely listening, or even really being the best company in the world from where he sat across from Tobias. His eyes kept flickering towards the door with a sort of eager, yet uncertain anticipation, and every gaggle of Hogwarts students who entered he seemed to evaluate for a split second hopefully, and then sag with some disappointment. “No, no, can’t be arsed with Zonko’s, mate. There’s only so many Gobstones sets one can buy over the years before you remember you’re not twelve any more.”

 

“Instead of just having the mental age of twelve,” Tobias muttered, not without warmth as he took a large gulp from his drink.

 

Cal finally glanced back at him, seemingly settling down a little, though his gaze kept flickering over Tobias’ shoulder. “True enough. I’ve moved on to bigger and better things, though. Like collecting Chocolate Frog cards and Quidditch memorabilia. More mature ideas.” He smirked, and Tobias was infinitely glad to see in the smile the same Cal he’d known for years, the moping and sullen creature of the first few weeks of school seeming to have just been an aberration.

 

“Where’s Gabe?” he asked at last, glancing about the pub and forcing himself to cease his nervous drumming.

 

A shrug from Cal. “I dunno. Around. Not here.”

 

Tobias raised his eyebrows. “‘Not here’. Really. Bloody master of detection, you are.”

 

“Oh, I know. Sherlock Holmes, eat your heart out.” Cal shrugged again, toothy grin broadening. “I assume he reached the same conclusion as me about this little date of yours with Tanith…”

 

“It’s not a date. It’s a… a drink,” Tobias butted in curtly.

 

“Yeah, whatever. But the same conclusion that it’s all going to end with an explosion of approximately the same heat and ferocity as the burning, blazing inferno of the sun,” Cal continued uncaringly. “And Gabe, being a much more sensible fellow than myself, has decided to deal with it by going to ground in that little nuclear bunker of Gabe-ness that he has in the hope of surviving it all.”

 

“So why are you here?” Tobias asked, one eyebrow raised and looking dubious.

 

“Damage control. And, uh… I like this place,” Cal said, gaze flickering over Tobias’ shoulder again as a gaggle of Hufflepuffs walked in and promptly lost his interest. “Besides, you need moral support for this… drink…”

 

“Why do you say it like it’s iniquitous? It’s not like I’m about to do any propositioning or something,” Tobias said with exasperation, colour rising slightly to his cheeks, recognisably through embarrassment more than irritation.

 

Cal snorted. “It’s not like you can claim that there isn’t something a little bit dodgy about the two of you hanging around together – patently together, as this is going to be a private party I’m leaving once she arrives. I’m just saying. It means something. And if it didn’t, you wouldn’t be expecting me to leave.”

 

“I just need… to have a conversation with her. Somewhere neutral. Safe. It’s worked before,” Tobias pointed out, though his precedent was a good four years old.

 

“Yeah? Any good conversation topics in this little chat?” Cal asked a spot just over Tobias’ shoulder.

 

“As a matter of fact I need her full and frank opinion on certain… delicate issues…”

 

“Because delicacy, as we all know, is Tanith Cole’s forte…”

 

“…and I also need to do a little bit of grovelling, which is usually helped by bribery. Hence the butterbeer.” Tobias sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands. “It’s just been a weird week. With stuff with her, and then stuff with Annie…”

 

“Annie?” Cal’s eyes snapped back to meet Tobias’. “You talked to Mac?”

 

“Um. Yes. She talked to me. About… stuff. And it’s all really very confusing, and so I’d like to know where I stand before I make a decision or do something stupid,” Tobias replied with that same slightly terse air of embarrassment.

 

“Like last time you and Tanith had a date,” Cal mused out loud.

 

Tobias’ expression darkened significantly. “Don’t bring that up, Cal. Not now. I will hit you.”

 

“With your puny, puny fists,” the much burlier Quidditch player rejoined with another toothy grin.

 

“Or, you know, my wand. Look, it’s pretty obvious you don’t necessarily want to be here…” Tobias glanced over his shoulder again as Cal’s gaze was once again distracted. “Just who are you looking for? You’ve been staring at the door like a dog waiting for its master for the last twenty minutes.” He paused, then looked at its watch. “Thirty. It’s now ten past one. She’s late. Great.” A deep, irritated sigh.

 

“Well, she said she had something to do. You know Tanith. Ever mysterious,” Cal pointed out, still not looking at him.

 

“It would be nice, though, if she actually cared enough about this meeting to show on time.” Tobias scrubbed his face with his hands. “I know she’s pissed at me. And I’d be fine if she’d said ‘Screw you, Grey, I won’t be caught dead being seen in public with you’, and then hexed me into the ground. For a given value of ‘fine’, I confess. But saying she’ll show and then…”

 

“She may have good reason,” his friend said tentatively.

 

“If so, she could at least send me a message or something. She didn’t even say what this other thing she had to do was.” Tobias wrung his hands together, beginning to frown. “You know, I put up with an awful lot of her crap over the years. We all do, but me especially. We screw up, and it’s the end of the world, but she does something bad to us? ‘Oh, that’s just Tanith’. I’m getting sick…”

 

“Toby? Toby!” Cal clicked his fingers in Tobias’ face. “She’ll show. Stop spazzing.”

 

“I am not ‘spazzing’, I’m pointing out the sheer hypocrisy she indulges in,” Tobias muttered, his voice venomous through tension and nerves more than any true anger, but virulent nevertheless. “She just better show up soon, is all, or it’ll be her turn to start grovelling for once.”

 

“I would bet all the galleons in my pocket – which is actually more than one today, good going me – that she will be here, ohh, within the next twenty minutes. So you can calm down, drink your butterbeer, and…” Cal’s voice suddenly trailed off as his gaze snapped back to the pub door.

 

Tobias paused for a second, squinting as he waited for a conclusion. “And… go mad?” He finally turned around to spot the gaggle of Ravenclaws in their year that had just stepped in. “What are you staring at?”

 

“Jesus, Toby, don’t turn around!” Cal hissed frantically, going from gawking to lurking within a second as he attempted to be nonchalant in watching the small group. “Have a slightly discreet bone in your body!”

 

“We’re being discreet now?” Tobias blinked with confusion. “What? It’s just Sharpe and some others. Are we hiding from Ravenclaws these days?”

 

“She’s going up to the bar,” Cal muttered, not paying any attention to Tobias by now. “Time to get her a drink?”

 

“Oh, it’s a girl!” Realisation washed over Tobias’ face, which within seconds was followed by a broad, toothy grin as the further consequences of this fact sank in. “This should be fun. I’ve never had the chance to see the torment from this perspective. So come on, which is it?” He craned his neck to look over at the bar.

 

“Shut up,” Cal murmured wittily.

 

“It’s not Chang, is it? Because I don’t think you’re enough of a big damn hero for her to be attracted to you,” Tobias said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “So if that’s not the case, and assuming it’s not Craig Sharpe you’re making googly eyes at, this leads me to conclude that the options are Jameson… or what’s her face.”

 

“Nathalie,” Cal muttered automatically, then paused, slapping his forehead and cursing as he realised what he’d done and Tobias gave a short, victorious bark of laughter.

 

“And Lockett is the winner, ladies and gentlemen!” he crowed, just about managing to keep his voice low enough for it to not carry across towards the Ravenclaws. “I figured as much, Jameson’s too dry for your tastes, Lockett’s a bit… fruitier?”

 

“Stop making girls sound like wine, Toby, it makes you sound really quite fruity yourself,” Cal growled. “And… fine. Yes. Nat Lockett. We got talking after a Quidditch practice when she got smacked in the face with a Bludger.”

 

“Romantic,” Tobias observed dryly. “Did you hit it?”

 

“What? No! I just walked her up to the Hospital Wing. She still has my hankie.” Cal’s expression turned briefly distant, and perhaps… longing?

 

“Also romantic,” was the mused reply. “So? Why aren’t you going over there and asking for it back? Assuming you weren’t doing something sordid with that handkerchief.”

 

“I can’t just…”

 

“Why not?” Tobias asked honestly, leaning towards his friend even as he cut off his protests. “Go up there. Say you know she’s still got your handkerchief, and you’d like to buy it back from her with a drink.”

 

Cal paused, narrowing his eyes at Tobias with deep suspicion. “Who are you, and what the hell have you done with Toby? Because that didn’t sound like a half-bad suggestion.”

 

“What can I say? I got snarked at by Dumbledore and I’m a new man. Carpe Diem, my friend. Go on.” Tobias rolled his eyes as he got a slightly hesitant look in exchange. “Either you’re being chicken or you don’t want to leave me on my own. So suck it up, and I’ll be fine. Really.”

 

“Buy it back with a drink. That could work. Huh.” Cal was still muttering to himself by the time he drained his butterbeer, stood up, patted Tobias on the back firmly, then squared his shoulders and marched off in the direction of the bar.

 

Tobias chuckled to himself, feeling a lot of the tension wash away from him as he watched Cal approach Lockett at the bar, successfully hiding any of his aforementioned nervousness, and apparently striking up a conversation. But he didn’t have much chance to observe or reflect on these matters as a shadow fell across the table and a familiar voice spoke.

 

“Flying solo today?” Annie MacKenzie asked brightly, her own hesitation plain for the world to see as she looked down at Tobias.

 

He paused, sputtering briefly with the unexpectedness of her arrival, and pasted a smile on his face that came a lot easier than he had expected. “Annie! Hi! Uh… yeah. On my own right now. Cal had an appointment he couldn’t miss.”

 

“I saw,” Annie said with a slight grin, glancing over at the bar. “Good for him. Mind if I join you, then, in his absence?” She shifted her feet slightly.

 

Tobias opened his mouth to tell her that it was fine, that he was waiting for Tanith and she’d probably be here soon – but the promise of ‘soon’ caught in his throat, and he glanced down at his watch. One twenty. Really, this was taking the piss. If she couldn’t be bothered to meet up when arranged…

 

He looked back up at Annie, his smile softening and turning a good deal more genuine. “Not at all. I’d welcome the company,” he said firmly, leaning back and feeling the tension of the last few days begin to wash away as, finally, he began to set down the balls he’d been keeping in the air all week.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

An hour and a half earlier, Tanith wandered down the streets of Hogsmeade in unhappy search of the Hog’s Head. Why the meeting had been arranged to be held at that forsaken place, she wasn’t sure, except that it was out of the way and the smell might perhaps fend off any potential onlookers.

 

Still, if Altair wanted her to be there at twelve, she would be there at twelve.

 

Ever since the encounter with Thanatos Brynmor in Derbyshire, she had been pestering her tutor for information. About this ‘spy network’ Brynmor had mentioned, about just why she would have been a valuable prisoner, about why the man who had taught her everything Hogwarts hadn’t, from spelling to classic art, was trained in combat. Most every letter she’d received in return had been nothing if not evasive, and as she didn’t quite dare open up this can of worms with her father, she had begun to accept that she would, in fact, be told nothing about her family’s activities.

 

Until a week earlier, when she had received an owl from Altair telling her to meet him in a room booked at the Hog’s Head at noon on her scheduled trip to Hogsmeade. It was really rather typical that Tobias then attempted to arrange this very strange lunchtime drink for the same time, but he had been fortuitously diverted.

 

But she couldn’t dwell on that topic right then, especially not as, when turning a corner, she saw the sign of the Hog’s Head swinging in the autumn breeze, and squared her shoulders for whatever unpleasant sight might greet her within.

 

It was cleaner than she had expected, though it appeared to be abandoned for a few seconds while she took in her surroundings, until motion behind the bar suggested the presence of staff and she noticed a familiar shape in the corner. With the wall to his back and the hood of his robe pulled over his head, Altair Ritter was as unrecognisable as he was furtive.

 

He did look up as she came in and brought the bar’s population up to about three – or four, if the slight bleating from towards the back was a sign of livestock and if a goat counted – and smoothly padded across the common room towards her.

 

“You’re here, good. I have a room upstairs, I’d rather not discuss anywhere else.” There was none of his usual warmth – although Ritter was hardly the friendliest of men, he usually at least recognised common courtesies and reserved a certain amount of genuine affection for her. But she didn’t question it, or even manage to get together an answer as he turned on his heel and started for the stairway.

 

Upstairs it was creakier; the smell of mould was in the air and the atmosphere much thicker. Unlike she’d expected, she wasn’t beginning to suffer the sensation of needing to shower; rather, perhaps, scrape something off herself. It felt more unclean than just sheer dirt.

 

Ritter remained silent until he reached one of the doors in the corridor, then pulled a key from his robes and slipped it in the lock to permit them access to a surprisingly large room. No bed was in sight, though the dust pattern suggested to Tanith that there had been one in the room until recently. Indeed, the only furniture at all was a small table pushed up against a wall with two stools next to it, and it was towards these that Ritter gestured as he closed and locked the door behind her.

 

“To begin with,” Ritter said as she sat down and he lowered his hood, “that was incredibly stupid. I could have been anybody; owl mail is not secure enough for you to assume your correspondence is not under surveillance.”

 

Tanith blinked at him. “I… what?”

 

“You have already established that you are a desirable target for abduction by Death Eaters, and you just allowed someone who looked like your tutor to escort you into a room with nobody else in earshot. Indeed, I would assume that nobody else even knows where you are.” Ritter folded his arms across his chest, looking down at her. “Up until now, you have been safe within Hogwarts’ walls. This trip has left you open to danger, and you wandered blindly in.”

 

She straightened up, leaning across the table to peer at him. “So, let me get this straight. You and Dad have been keeping secrets about the family from me, secrets that have the potential to place me in danger. But you haven’t told me about these secrets, and yet you’re still pissed that I’m not taking precautions against a threat I don’t know about!”

 

“You knew about it. You came face to face with Thanatos Brynmor, and he stated your capture to be a feather in his hat,” Ritter pointed out.

 

“Thanatos Brynmor, yes, who has a permanent place on the Ministry’s Ten Most Wanted list, whom you tackled in the dark like you knew what you were doing. You, a squib, and him, a bloody Death Eater.” Tanith’s brow furrowed, already sick of having accusations thrown at her when she had been all pent-up and ready to be the one to get righteous, and deciding to get to the topic she wanted to discuss. “You said you’d explain things to me here. Do you want to start explaining them, so I might actually understand why I’m such a prize to Death Eaters? And just… who the hell are you?”

 

Ritter paused, frowning a little, then gave a small shrug. “Alright. That’s fair.” He stepped over to the table and claimed the other stool, leaning against the wall and stretching his long legs out in front of him. “I did not answer your questions in the post because, as I said, it was not secure. And, at first, because I was not permitted to by your father. It was a matter of much discussion between us.”

 

He reached inside his robes and pulled out a long wooden pipe and a small pack of tobacco; his hands moved through a routine of their own, needing little attention as they sorted out his smoke and he continued to speak.

 

“But eventually, he relented and told me to come here to talk to you. He would be here himself, but he has business to attend to, and I am most sincere when I say it is important business. It also has absolutely nothing to do with horse breeding.” Ritter popped the pipe in his mouth, reaching for matches and lighting up.

 

“So I shall start… from the beginning. The beginning from my perspective, at least. As you know, when I was… removed from Hogwarts for a complete lack of magical ability, I spent most of my time working about the magical world doing mundane jobs, like tending bar. I still have certain advantages over Muggles – I can see Dementors, I can use a broom if I don’t have to do anything too exciting, and anti-Muggle wards don’t work on me. These were very small consolation for a boy stuck inside a world he could never join, you understand, but it still meant I was more than the non-magic folk.

 

“I’m saying all of this to you,” Ritter explained, the look of bitterness that had crossed his face at mention of his earlier life slowly passing, “so that you understand what a significant and rather bizarre event it was when I was approached by your father when I was about fifteen, and he offered me employment. I, of course, knew your family through my own, though with them wanting nothing to do with me I hadn’t expected such blood-connections to be worth a knut.

 

“Your father said that he recognised that I had had a hard life, and that this had imbued me with certain qualities that could not be taught. I believe he’d had his eye on me for a while, though why I’m not really sure. And though at first he just offered me menial work in his business, within several months he was asking me to do… odd-jobs for him. Running messages over to this family, or making a delivery to that company. With hindsight, I can see what he was doing, for all of the people he had me innocently spending time with were those who would later show themselves for You-Know-Who, as at this point the war was just beginning to heat up, and sides were just beginning to be picked. And those loyal to You-Know-Who, who had dinner parties and business arrangements with your father, became familiar with me as just a squib who hung around and was… there to be ignored.” Ritter smiled finally, a tight and slightly predatory smile, and his gaze was fixed on a point somewhere outside of the window as he spoke.

 

“Your father did, however, encourage me to do other things. He recognised that Muggles had got by in certain ways without magic, and asked me to… familiarise myself with them. Learn how to defend myself if I could never use a wand, learn how to drive, make sure I had a Muggle identity with everything perfectly legal and above board. Do you know how rarely Death Eaters and Aurors alike ever check who travelled on a Muggle train even while they’re staring at the Floo Network or watching who apparates where? It’s remarkably easy to drop off the grid.

 

“And so I did these things. And as the war heated up further, your father asked me to perform more specific tasks. When sending a message to Malfoy Manor about the next breeding season, to find and make copies of his latest owl correspondence. When delivering feed to the Drakes, to be sure to lurk in the vicinity of Bacchus Drake himself and try to overhear what his plans were for the following weekend.”

 

Ritter paused as he saw his pipe had gone dead from more talking than smoking, then sighed and picked up his matches to re-light it. “It took me a few months before I dredged up the courage to ask your father just what was going on, and another few months before he told me. At this point, the country was under siege from You-Know-Who and his followers, though I was already aware that half of the masked individuals who murdered Muggles were sitting around the table at a dinner party on a Saturday night. They were your father’s friends, and his family’s friends, and some had been so for generations.

 

“He had seen the war coming a long way off, thanks to them. Had heard the discontent brewing amongst the pure-bloods, and heard of the popularity of a powerful, charismatic man named… well, you know, around whom they could focus all of their dissatisfaction. And he knew that he wanted no part of it.

 

“But he also knew that it would be impossible for him to publicly distance himself from You-Know-Who’s growing movement, as he was but an island in a sea of would-be Death Eaters. They would turn on him instantly – perhaps just destroying him socially, perhaps just destroying him economically, or perhaps just destroying him. He was already married to your mother, already planning a family, and refused to up all that he had just as much as he refused to do as his friends bade.

 

“I don’t even know who he fed the information to. I know it’s not the Ministry, because he was having me run jobs all last year when the official line was that You-Know-Who’s return was nothing but a myth; even I thought he was just being paranoid until the public confirmation. But he was gathering his information on the Death Eaters on a personal basis, and could do so very effectively from the inside. Who they were, where they would be. Their strengths and weaknesses. Who bragged about which murder. And I know that those on whom we gathered information were usually ultimately arrested, or that they seemed to be foiled on a regular enough basis that the information was going to somebody who could do something with it. I have asked many a time, and he has never told me. I think that, perhaps, might be to everyone’s benefit.”

 

Ritter puffed on the pipe, then leaned back and, ridiculously casually, blew a smoke ring that made it to the middle of the room before dissipating. “When the war was over, most families were none the wiser. I believe some, like Brynmor, figured it out when they saw the pattern of their own failures, but he was never publicly outed. I think he asked me to stay with the family for his own safety as much as mine, though, because it’s amazing how many times one can win a fight on the sheer basis of being massively underestimated.

 

“It seems that he has now been blown, at least with the main organisation of Death Eaters, but the war is different this time. The followers of You-Know-Who are less brazen, and the vast majority of them are on the run from the authorities, whereas before their identities were usually secret. They don’t have the influence they once did to cripple your father as he first feared they might, and whoever he’s feeding information to is keeping him safe from physical repercussions.”

 

Ritter at last finished the pipe, setting it down and turning to face Tanith, who had listened to all of this with nothing more than wide-eyed astonishment. “So, you see… your father wasn’t a coward in the war. He was as brave as a man could be without being stupid.”

 

Tanith stared at him for several long moments, his words almost having washed over her once the fullest implications of her father’s life and the way she had treated him sank in. “I… am really going to need to apologise…”

 

“That isn’t what this is about. Not at all.” Ritter shook his head firmly. “He’s not looking for an apology; quite frankly, if even his own daughter thought he had sat on the fence and done nothing and publicly said so, it helped his cover and it helped keep everyone safe. Daedalus counted on you to be… well, you.” He gave a small, thin smile.

 

“Then… what is this about? Why am I being told now? Aside from the fact that I was beginning to bug you?” She returned the smile very slightly, though hers was tinged with sheepishness.

 

“Because the cover is no longer necessary… and because your father believes you are in danger. I find information for him in a much more hands-on and less subtle way these days, as people no longer discuss the Dark Lord’s plans at dinner parties, but I do still find things out. The latest rumours suggest that the Death Eaters have an agent within Hogwarts, and though there are any number of horrible things such a person could do, your father is worried that you may be seen as an easy target.”

 

“Easy?” Tanith snorted. “I can hex anyone into the ground…”

 

“If you can see them coming. And you have already demonstrated to me that you are not as alert as you could be. Not to mention the fact that a simple Disarming spell leaves you as helpless as a kitten.” Ritter stood up, straightening his shoulders. “This is not the only time we shall be meeting here. Your father did not just send me here to explain the situation to you. He sent me here to train you.”

 

“Train me?” She frowned. “I don’t… train me for what?”

 

“Surviving. Though I imagine it’ll come in handy for your Auror application, and will probably put you ahead of the curve on all other candidates.” Ritter folded his arms across his chest. “I’ll be teaching you everything you’ll need that Hogwarts won’t instruct you on. How to survive without your wand – with the usage of other prepared equipment, or with improvised resources, or just with your bare hands. How to see a threat when it’s coming, how to react to said threat and when. So that if any Death Eater comes for you, you’ll be ready, and if they take your wand away from you, you won’t be disarmed – even if, and this is the most useful tactic out there, they think you are.”

 

Tanith scrubbed her face with her hands. She had once upon a time – ie, half an hour ago – thought her father to be a quiet, cowardly man who didn’t want to upset anybody. Now she was convinced he was a complete raving psychopath, and the man who had taught her spelling, grammar, and basic mathematics appeared to be some kind of wandless ninja.

 

Unfortunately, the only actual problem that she could find the words to address was, “When are these super secret teaching sessions going to fit in with my NEWTs?”

 

“Your father has sent a letter to Professors Snape and Dumbledore saying he wants permission for you to visit Hogsmeade every Sunday. You will come here at midday every week, and we will train, and you… will stay safe.” Ritter reached down under the table and pulled a small chest out, which he lifted onto the table and opened up. “Starting today.”

 

“What?” That was about as eloquent as Tanith could get right then.

 

Inside the chest was an array of dusty maps and charts. “We’ll begin with safe routes down from Hogwarts to the Hog’s Head. Then we’ll be moving on to the various routes around the castle – the discreet passages, the more unusual short-cuts and long ways round. Routes that you can use, but also importantly, routes that someone else could use to take you by surprise.”

 

Her head felt as if it was filled with a dull buzzing, and only every other word uttered by Ritter was making it through to her brain. “Dad’s crazy,” she said at last.

 

He looked at her, and there was not a shred of the benevolent tutor who had brought her up in his eyes. It was all hard, pitiless darkness, and sheer professionalism that suggested he had no time for such outbursts. “We’re fighting a war, Tanith. He’s just trying to look out for you.”

 

“Crazily.”

 

“The best routes down to Hogsmeade are, of course, from the main gates,” Ritter continued seamlessly, laying a map on the table and straightening it out for them both to see, and despite her misgivings she attentively leaned in.

 

They continued here for another hour. Going through the routes down to Hogsmeade, including the passageway she had taken the previous New Year to make it to the village fair – routes when one wanted to be swift, routes when one wanted to be discreet, everything under the sun. Then the various passageways around Hogwarts, leaving Tanith feeling as if she had learnt more about the school in that hour than she had in the previous six years.

 

And it was only when they were looking through maps of Hogsmeade and addressing discreet routes through the street that her eyes fell on the marker for the Three Broomsticks, and her heart leapt into her throat.

 

“Oh, God. What time is it?” she asked, jumping to her feet.

 

“One-thirty. We have all afternoon,” Ritter said blankly, looking a bit jolted at the sudden change of pace.

 

“All afternoon… crap. I have to go.” Tanith yanked up her jacket, trying to pull it on and managing to get the sleeves the wrong way around.

 

“Go? What? We’re not finished here.” Although the authoritative note was creeping into his voice, he sounded as if he hadn’t expected to need it.

 

“I know. Look… I’ll be back in an hour. I’m just late for a meeting.” She looked him in the eye as she paused to rearrange her jacket. “I wasn’t expecting super secret training time, Altair, I made plans for what was meant to be a day of fun! I have to meet someone. I’ll be back afterwards… I’m late already, I really need to go.”

 

Without waiting for a reply, she practically flew out of the room, down the stairs, and through the door to burst into the Hogsmeade streets.

 

Already the lesson was sinking in, for as she pelted full-speed down the street her mind was running through the quickest route from here to the Three Broomsticks – left at that alleyway, cut through behind Madam Puddifoot’s, hang a right at the post office, and…

 

Her air was burning in her lungs as she sprinted towards the front door of the Three Broomsticks, and she barely got the door-handle of the entranceway pushed down enough that she didn’t just run flat into the door. Thus she burst into the pub with what would have been some ceremony had it not already been a bright and bustling establishment, and just about managed to not pass out with the blood rushing in her ears as she scanned the bar.

 

She saw a clock, first, telling her it was twenty-five to two – then Cal at the bar, paused in conversation with a brown-haired girl she only dimly recognised, and presently staring at her in what appeared to be abject horror. This didn’t really sink in as her gaze pivoted around the rest of the bar, then finally reaching a booth by the window where she saw Tobias seated, calmly talking to someone she couldn’t see…

 

Then the burly wizard in front of her moved out of the way, and she felt her stomach crumple up into approximately the size of a pea then try to claw its way up her throat.

 

For there, seated opposite Tobias and, now that she could see clearly, reaching across the table and holding his hand, sat one rather happy-looking Annie MacKenzie.

Chapter 15: The Talented Mister Doyle
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Chapter 14: The Talented Mister Doyle

 

Gabriel sauntered down the school corridor, whistling to himself cheerfully and tossing the small ball he’d been practicing inanimate to animate Transfiguration on from hand to hand. It was the week after the already infamous Hogsmeade trip, and by now Gabriel was wondering how long it would take for the sky to fall in on them all.

 

He’d gone to ground that day, quite intentionally sticking with Bletchley, Pucey, and Montague as they became more interested in joke shops and sweet shops than the drama around them. And, not very much to his surprise, he’d returned to find out that everything had gone most particularly wrong.

 

In all honesty, he hadn’t anticipated the exact flavour of wrongness. Cal had found him and mostly just blabbered at him about some girl – Crockett, or something – he’d been unable to talk to without allegedly shoving his foot in his own mouth. When Gabriel had pressed him on the subject of the Amazing Soap of Tobias and Tanith, Cal’s face had dropped, and he had explained all he could.

 

Tobias Grey and Annie MacKenzie were an item again. And Tanith was probably plotting to end the world.

 

In all honesty, Gabriel didn’t particularly care who Tobias went out with. It was aggravating that he’d be expected to spend time with a Gryffindor, but the fact that all other Gryffindors would be so incensed by the idea of one of theirs going out with a senior Slytherin that the ammunition for arguments was a sufficient compensation. And if Tanith wanted to go back to being territorial and pissy, and yet unable to actually do anything about it, then who was he to stop her?

 

Not that it was fun getting the secret, venomous monologue of how MacKenzie was an evil skank whenever they crossed paths, but Tanith at least usually bothered Cal with that more than she bothered him.

 

All in all, it could have been worse. Gabriel had been expecting their ‘date’ to result in an argument between his two friends which would have led to constant sniping and fighting. He knew Tanith would never show her hand quite so plainly when being scathing and territorial, so overall this was actually a much better result.

 

Which could leave him to focus on other, more important things. Like who this girl was that Cal had his knickers in a twist over. And what he could do to the Gryffindors…

 

But no soon as that thought was finished did fate seem to answer his wonderings, for around the corner in front of him ambled McLaggen and Wilson, joking and jostling one another and probably on their way in from the fields at this time in the lunch break.

 

Both parties paused as they saw one another, Gabriel keeping his face neutral and trying to fight off the creeping grin which threatened, Wilson and McLaggen sobering significantly and narrowing their eyes at the waiting Slytherin.

 

Then McLaggen’s features broke into a broad, predatory grin. Or perhaps what he thought was predatory; the thinner, more discreetly amused smile that tugged at Gabriel’s face might have rivalled it had it been more obvious.

 

“Doyle!” McLaggen sauntered over to Gabriel with a falsely casual air, Wilson falling into step next to him. “Nice day for it, huh?”

 

“That really does depend on what ‘it’ is, McLaggen. Nice day for being mentally stunted? Well, the sun’s bright, the sky’s blue, there’s not very much going on to confuse you, I suppose…” Gabriel scratched at his chin with a mock-thoughtful air, glancing out the window in a studious manner.

 

McLaggen’s expression flickered, but Wilson stepped in before he could get seemingly too angered. “You’re a funny, funny guy, Doyle. And not that smart yourself, pissing off two guys who are both bigger than you when you’re on your own.”

 

“You seemed to be looking for a fight. I’m a people pleaser.” Gabriel smiled toothily, glancing between the two of them but honestly wondering what his options were if this turned nasty. “What made you two wake up on the wrong side of bed this morning? Or did you swap whose side is whose for fun? I suppose, McLaggen, you always struck me as the sort to take the left side of the bed and not be very understanding of Wilson’s wants…”

 

The shove from McLaggen hit him in the shoulder with a strength he hadn’t quite anticipated, and sent him staggering back a few steps. He saw Wilson give McLaggen a slightly warning look, and realised that perhaps not both of them wanted to kick the tar out of him today. If he kept his mouth shut, perhaps they’d get bored, or realise he was more trouble than he was worth.

 

…like he’d ever been good at keeping quiet when speaking could piss someone off. And that headache was starting again.

 

“Sorry, my bad. I forgot, Gryffindors are sharing beds with Slytherins these days, aren’t they.” Gabriel gave them both an amused look, straightening up from the impact of the push. “Maybe I should go see Riley, see if she wants to follow the fashion MacKenzie’s been setting… I could find a spot in my schedule for –”

 

As Wilson’s self-restraint died and he stepped forward, Gabriel cursed his own brain for having picked Jennifer Riley as a target, when probably any other Gryffindor would have kept the slightly more sensible of his two antagonists more controlled instead of suddenly incensed.

 

This time, a hand wrapped around the front of his robes and almost lifted him right off the ground as he was slammed against the wall. His head bashed hard enough against the stone to hurt, and for –

 

- stood in the light drizzle on this bright winter’s day, his arm around her as she sobbed into his shoulder. The coffin was lowered into the ground and he looked away, not wanting to see the end, his vision instead filled with the grief of his friends and, off in the distance, him, watching from afar -

 

The pain that exploded behind Gabriel’s eyes had precious little to do with him bashing his head, and his arms flailed wildly for a few seconds against Wilson’s grip to try and get him to let go.

 

“You lunatic! Get off me!” he snapped, a little more frantically than he would have liked. “Are you out of your mind?”

 

Wilson did let go of him, however reluctantly, and it took most of Gabriel’s strength to stop himself from sliding to the floor. “Push my buttons, Doyle, and I’ll push yours. I’m just more physical about it,” the Gryffindor spat. “Annie’s nice. Annie’s smart. She needs better than a snake.”

 

“Then take that up with her. Or even Grey. What do you think I am, Slytherin’s puppetmaster?” Gabriel retorted sharply, his bravado fading as he felt his eyeballs throbbing in his skull.

 

“Take it up with Grey? Oh, yeah. King of snakes himself, been running around enforcing law and order with an iron fist these last few days. Took Ackerley’s bloody prefect badge!” McLaggen scoffed.

 

“You do know that Ackerley was accepting bribes to let people off when he caught them, right?” Gabriel pointed out, remembering Tobias having complained about the Gryffindor fifth-year prefect for weeks, and being jubilant when he’d declared he had the authority to strip him of his badge.

 

“Bollocks. He’s just trying to strike against Gryffindor,” McLaggen said.

 

“By going out with one. I’m not sure you’re using this Earth-logic, mates,” Gabriel muttered, straightening his robes. “I’m also not sure what this has to do with me.”

 

“Well, he’s your friend. And since he somehow managed to charm the teachers into giving him almighty bloody power – seriously, a Slytherin waving that around? They’re barmy,” Wilson cursed, “it’s not like we can go near him.”

 

“So you’re taking out all of your anger on me. Or sending him a message… via me. How incredibly courageous of you. Honestly, it’s like the spirit of Godric Gryffindor himself has imbued you with all of the bravery you’re exuding right this moment,” Gabriel spat.

 

“Oh, you don’t get to lecture us on any of this. You, the most conniving Slytherin out there,” Wilson said, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

 

“By ‘conniving’, you mean I’m smarter than Bletchley, not as wet as Tobias, and not as emotional as Tanith. None of these are very hard, you know…” Gabriel leaned a hand against the wall as he felt his vision begin to blur once again, but he’d be damned if he was going to keel over in front of these two clowns. “Now, are you two asses going to put your money where your mouth is, and courageously use me to send a message to Tobias?”

 

In all honesty, as Wilson and McLaggen exchanged glances, he thought he had them. Thought he might just have managed to shame them into not bothering with him, not attacking him two on one. For although his wand was up his sleeve, the blistering pain behind his eyes was enough to dismiss any spell vocals that came to mind. The only battle he was going to win today was going to be a battle of wits.

 

“Or should I accept it that you two ladies ran off like girls and now I should go call up Riley in case she fancies a real man?” As the final comment escaped his lips and McLaggen’s brow knitted in anger, Gabriel realised that he might – perhaps – have just pushed too far.

 

On the whole, though, he was glad that it was McLaggen who stepped forward. McLaggen, with his burly frame and impetuous nature, who would always charge straight at a problem in the most obvious manner. He had to have angered Wilson to the extent that the other boy was concentrating on not killing him too much to take action – and that was just as well, for he had crossed Wilson before. The Gryffindor could be inventive, vicious.

 

But as it was, it was just Cormac McLaggen he had to deal with. Just Cormac McLaggen who swung a fist to connect with his gut and have him doubling over in pain, feeling for long seconds as if there was not a single part of his body that wasn’t rebelling in agony. And as he allowed himself to slump off the floor, it was both of them that walked away, no longer joking and light-hearted, not seeming to have taken much glee from the deed.

 

Well. They might have just kicked a little bit of tar out of him, but at least he had successfully robbed them of all enjoyment it could have brought.

 

This was scant consolation as he tried to straighten up and ignore to pain in his gut, even as the ache behind his eyes continued to throb, but it would do as a victory. Everything they had done, he had controlled, or triggered, or manipulated.

 

Which really meant that the state he was in was entirely his own fault.

 

It was with something of a limp that he made his way along the corridor back towards the Great Hall, where everyone else would be finishing off lunch and getting ready for afternoon lessons. Where they would all be caught up in their own little distractions, their own fixations, the dramas, probably too much to notice the state that he was in.

 

That suited Gabriel just fine, to be honest. It minimised questions, minimised the mess. He’d be damned if he was going to deliver any message of any kind to Grey beyond ‘All Gryffindors are bastards’, and so it was with a patent disregard of the aforementioned Tobias, lurking outside and talking with MacKenzie in an intimate manner that Gabriel did his level best to outright ignore that he entered the Great Hall.

 

He saw Tanith and Cal over at the Slytherin table, neither of them seeming to be having much conversation going on, and he headed over towards them. Cal’s gaze seemed to be fixed more on the Ravenclaw table than anywhere else, and Tanith’s eyes kept flickering over to the main doorway, which did mean she noticed him first.

 

There seemed to be a few seconds where she appeared to be pondering whether or not to react to his presence, then she reached out with a foot to nudge the bench opposite her out a little so she could sit down. For reasons of their separate obsessions, both she and Cal were seated on the same side of the table, which only added to how crazy and distracted they looked.

 

“Hey, Doyle,” Tanith greeted him weakly, eyes flickering again back to the door. “Did you see…”

 

“They’re outside, tongue-wrestling,” Gabriel lied. If she was going to be crazy and obsessive, then she deserved whatever she get. Plus, his head still hurt. “It was like the giant squid out there.”

 

There was an obvious scowl, and Gabriel rolled his eyes. He’d already had his lunch, rushing straight away to go and eat so he could then get some Transfiguration practice in for the afternoon, but he reached eagerly for some cool water to try and calm the various aches in his body.

 

“Gryffindor skank,” Tanith muttered venomously.

 

“The term I coined was ‘Gryffind-whore’. It rolls off the tongue better,” Gabriel offered generously. “Plus, if you say it fast enough, they don’t realise they’re being insulted.”

 

“Oh, if I’m insulting her, she’ll know about it.” Tanith stabbed her desert with righteous fury and its defences collapsed, surrendering to her a mouthful of pumpkin pie.

 

“Yeah. Because you’re normally so subtle,” Cal said. His throat sounded dry, as if he hadn’t actually spoken for some time. He was only pretending to eat, looking up furtively from his cake every few seconds across the room.

 

“Oh, yeah? How’s that staring at Lockett going? Has she noticed you’re a deranged stalker yet?” Tanith retorted sharply, and for the first time Gabriel noticed the bags under her eyes that, when he thought about it, had taken up permanent residence in the four nights since the Hogsmeade visit.

 

“I’m not… staring,” Cal protested weakly, tearing his attention back to them. “Why would I be staring?”

 

“Perhaps because you were incapable of talking to her in the Three Broomsticks without getting past the conversation topic of broom speeds? That sounds like an infinitely flirtatious and tempestuous chat, Brynmor. I don’t know how the girls can resist you,” Tanith replied with a haughty air.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Cal said, not sounding sorry at all, and finally looking a lot more awake as he glared at Tanith. “I was entirely distracted by Mac coming in and going to talk to Tobias. I couldn’t help but think about how absolutely ineffective, passive-aggressive, stupidly-jealous and territorial you would get about the entire escapade, and then such stupidity and romantic ineptitude were such prevalent ideas that they seemed to take me over.”

 

“Have you both been taking crazy potions lately?” Gabriel snapped at last, glaring between the two. “Merlin’s bollocks! Some girl gives Cal a wink and Tobias gets back with MacKenzie, which was all knew was going to happen at some point, and all of a sudden we’re bickering like Gryffindors over who has the biggest ego! Only for us, it’s who’s the biggest crackpot!”

 

“You seem to be sane,” Cal pointed out.

 

“Like you’ve been paying enough attention to notice one way or another. Seriously! I feel like I’m the only one here not about to go off the deep end!” Gabriel threw his hands up in the air irritably.

 

A slight shadow fell over him, and Gabriel looked up as Jack Urquhart stopped next to the bench, looking down at him with an expression of some genuine concern. “You okay, Doyle? You look like you’ve done ten rounds with a manticore.”

 

“No, I’m not!” Gabriel snapped, the irritation exploding at about the one person he’d encountered that hour who didn’t deserve it. “I had a run-in with McLaggen and Wilson earlier, they decided to take it out on me that there’s cross-house dating again and…” He stopped himself just short of commenting that his head hurt as Cal looked up sharply at this, seeming now to actually be paying attention. The last thing he wanted was to be at the centre of the next drama.

 

Urquhart frowned, then glanced up across the room at the Gryffindor table, where McLaggen and Wilson were nowhere to be seen. “McLaggen, huh? Something’ll have to be done about that. Hey, did you hear he failed again to get into the Quidditch team? Beaten by, of all people, Weasley?”

 

That news did cheer Gabriel up a chunk, for he had been forced for several years to have to listen to McLaggen boast in Charms classes about what an utter Quidditch prodigy he was, despite the fact that he couldn’t get onto the great Oliver Wood’s team. He had laughed himself stupid when he’d heard what McLaggen had done the previous year to incapacitate himself before Quidditch try-outs, and the fact that, now, the supposedly amazing player would go all of his time at Hogwarts without playing a single match warmed Gabriel’s heart.

 

“I did not know that.” Gabriel managed a small smirk of satisfaction, though winced slightly as straightening up made his stomach muscles ache in protest. But he’d be damned if he was going to subject himself to the tender mercies of Madam Pomfrey again; she’d probably go back to poking him to find out what had caused his little ‘episode’ in Defence Against the Dark Arts classes, which was more humiliation than he was up for. “Thanks, Jack.”

 

“No problem.” Urquhart, seeing he had done a degree of good, clapped Gabriel on the back –

 

“- why should I be fighting for people that hate me? And hate all of my friends?” he demanded angrily, flying high above the ground on his broom in the dark and glaring at her with an honest ferocity.

 

“It’s the right thing to do, Jack, and you know it! You’re just looking for excuses to sit and hide!” came her reply as she twirled around him, red hair waving about in the whipping wind. “You could make a difference, but instead you’re too interested in the damn cup to do anything that –”

 

This time, there had been no blow to the head; just the slight rocking that came from the impact of even a comforting pat from Urquhart as Gabriel’s vision exploded in front of him.

 

And this time, not even Tanith or Cal, at the height of their self-interest, could fail to notice as he let out an audible groan and leaned forwards, cradling his head in his hands.

 

“Gabe?” Cal reached out a hand towards him and Gabriel straightened up suddenly, feeling his head spinning as he did so but shying rapidly away from the touch.

 

“Nothing. I’m fine,” he replied quickly, mechanically. “Just a brief dizzy spell. McLaggen decided to sucker-punch me rather than fight like the girl he is.” He rubbed his brow in an effort to soothe the pain, quickly downing a mouthful of chilled water to see if fighting dehydration would make any difference.

 

“Hmm.” Cal again looked away, but this time it was towards the Gryffindor table with a dark, searching glare. “That’s something we’ll have to put on the to-do list, then. Fuck up Gryffindors’ shit.”

 

“I’m all up for that,” Tanith said, perking up suddenly. “Wilson still quakes when I wave my wand anywhere near him. Even if that was four years ago.”

 

“Time to make some plans, then.” Cal gave a small, slightly vicious smile. “What do you think about…”

 

“I think it’s almost time for Transfiguration classes,” Gabriel said firmly, forcing himself to stand. “Much as I’m happy to consider vengeance, right now, I’d just rather…”

 

Go die in a corner? he wondered, for it was a very tempting prospect at that moment. His heart was indeed warmed at the fact that his friends appeared to be rallying in the face of harm to him – though he was slightly dubious of Tanith’s motivations – but right then, plotting and planning was just going to make his head finally fall from his shoulders.

 

“Oh, yeah… we should go,” Tanith said, standing and grabbing her bag. “Or McGonagall’s going to throw a fit about us all being late… again…”

 

“I think last time she was throwing a fit because you were trying to turn those twelve matchsticks into one massive pin with limbs that would attack MacKenzie. Somehow, I think mass Transfiguration doesn’t include weapons of war,” Cal pointed out, joining his friends in heading for the door.

 

“It was a valiant effort, they just fell apart halfway there. It’s not like McGonagall or MacKenzie knew I was targeting anyone. And, hey, all twelve matchsticks became pins at once. She can’t say I failed,” Tanith protested.

 

Cal rolled his eyes. “She can say you’re psychotic.”

 

“Didn’t we already know that?” As they stepped out through the doors, Tobias wandered over to them, Annie in tow, wearing a toothy and rather ridiculous grin.

 

It looked as if it took a great deal of self-control for Tanith to not spew acid over them both as she glanced between the two. “You’re always the charmer, Grey. How do you get women?” she asked instead.

 

Though there had been an audible bite to her tone, Tobias didn’t seem to notice it as he gave Annie a slightly sloppy look and Gabriel rolled his eyes. “I’m not really sure. Extreme luck, I think,” he said with a small grin.

 

Annie also rolled her eyes as Gabriel remembered why he could stand being in her presence, whacking Tobias on the upper arm. “Perhaps. Or I just went completely mad, who can really tell?” Then she gave Tobias an affectionate grin. “I’m going to go find Jen. See you in class.”

 

There was almost a dull growl from Tanith as Annie leaned up to give Tobias a peck on the lips before turning to leave, just as half of the Great Hall spontaneously decided to also depart for classes, seeing the small group surrounded by a bustling crowd.

 

Gabriel could already feel his headache beginning to flare up at the slight, sudden claustrophobia creeping in the back of his mind from the crowd, before he felt someone brush against him –

 

- a dark room, looking once cosy and homely but now lit up by the green mark in the skies outside, the furniture trashed and the windows smashed. He lay on the floor, sobbing for breath, aware of another broken shape nearby, but most of his attention was fixed on the dark, robed figure who stood before him.

 

“I tire of this,” came a thick, grating voice from the gloomy shape of a man, and a small flash of light glinted to reflect off the polished wood of a wand pointed in his direction. “Enough is enough. Avada Kedavra!”

 

This one was enough to make Gabriel stagger, his legs buckling, and he would have fallen had it not been for the strong hands of Cal holding him upright, his friend’s face creased with concern. “Gabe?”

 

Gabriel stared at him, eyes wide, then looked down at the hands in his shoulders. “Did you grab me just now, Caldwyn? Just this second?”

 

Cal blinked. “What?”

 

“Or were you hanging onto me already…”

 

“Gabe, you looked like you were about to pass out again. Sorry, should I not try to stop you from being trampled by the crowd?” Cal let go of him, looking a little hurt as Gabriel looked around wildly. The four of them were all pushed up close together by the rest of the students, and already he could feel more people shoving past him to try and get off to their classes.

 

Try as he might, through memory or sight, he could not for the life of him see just who it was he’d knocked into before that final, bizarre flash of vision.

Chapter 16: The Female of the Species
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Chapter 15: The Female of the Species


 

“I call this meeting of the crazy to order,” Tanith declared, tapping her Transfiguration textbook with her wand, and prompting Cal and Gabriel to draw back slightly as a few green sparks shot out the end. “Oops.”

 

“Yeah, when you blow our heads off with accidental magic, ‘oops’ is the right response,” Cal responded dryly. “What are we doing here again?”

 

‘Here’ was basking in the sun for probably the last time that year, lounging by the lake on a Saturday morning, along with all other students who had realised that this was probably the final day of glorious sunshine before the onslaught of winter. Tobias was in his History of Magic lesson, and the other three Slytherins had gathered forces to worry about Transfiguration studies and their own, independent problems.

 

“Figuring out what I should turn into for the self-transfiguration classes,” Gabriel said, looking up from his open textbook with a sleepy expression. “It’s going to take practice.”

 

“I mean this ‘meeting of the crazy’,” Cal said instead. “You were the one so intent on it, Gabe.”

 

“And right now, I’m intent on not failing my NEWTs…”

 

Tanith cleared her throat, and the other two looked at her again. “We are here because all three of us have particular problems that need addressing, and we are going to work on this idea of a ‘spirit of cooperation’, instead of us continuing to bitch and snipe at each other.”

 

“And by ‘us bitching and sniping’, you mean ‘you bitching and sniping’,” Gabriel claimed.

 

Tanith actually gave him a halfway genuine smile. “I think you just negated your own point, there, Doyle,” she pointed out. As Gabriel waved a hand dismissively, her expression grew more serious. “And whilst my problem and Cal’s problem are obvious, as is one of your problems – namely, Gryffindors – for the other, we are about to gang up on you.”

 

Gabriel looked suddenly taken aback as Cal shared Tanith’s now rather toothy grin. “Gang up? What? McLaggen and Wilson weren’t good enough?”

 

“We’ll get to them later. First, we’re worried about you,” Cal said, his voice quiet and honest. “You and your health.”

 

“What about it?” Gabriel asked defensively.

 

Tanith rolled her eyes. “Complaining about headaches, that time you passed out, zoning out too much… Cal says Madam Pomfrey said it was just that you’ve had too much magic passing through you at once, but we’ve been watching you since.”

 

“Really? You’ve been paying attention to something other than your own issues?” Gabriel arched an eyebrow.

 

“Stop being a twat, Gabriel, we’re trying to help,” Cal said tersely. “We’ve been watching you, and you’ve hardly been casting any magic outside of classes. And the headaches are still happening.”

 

Gabriel looked between the two of them, still rather reserved. “Yeah? So?”

 

“So we want you to go back to Madam Pomfrey. And find out what’s up with you,” Tanith said. It seemed the two of them had been taking turns, tagging in and out with glances, and Gabriel was left with the impression that they had planned this in advance.

 

“I’m…”

 

“You’re not fine, Gabe. Really.” Cal fixed him with a look, cutting off his protestations, and the other Slytherin sagged at last.

 

“I… fine. Okay. Fine. I’ll go see her. See if I can get something for the headaches even if she can’t fix it,” Gabriel submitted at last, pinching the bridge of his nose. “With that done, can I get to telling you two why you’re idiots?”

 

“We know why,” Cal said smoothly. “We just need to figure out how to stop being idiots.”

 

You just need to suck it up, quite frankly,” Gabriel said to Cal, leaning back on the grass and shading his eyes from the glare of the sun. “Actually talk to her.”

 

“It’s not that easy,” Cal protested. “I can’t just… do that.”

 

Tanith brushed some of her hair back from her face as an errant gust of wind left her mildly dishevelled. “We may be getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start from the beginning, and break this down,” she said, with unusual calmness. “It’s Nat Lockett. She’s been in our year since forever. And you never noticed her before now.”

 

“We’ve hardly had any lessons with the Ravenclaws, I beg to point out,” Cal said with a shrug. “She wasn’t in the House Quidditch team last time I was, so I never met her on the pitch. And she keeps within her House. You’ve got it easier than us, Tanith, you get talking to prefects from other Houses.”

 

“I’m not sure that makes life ‘easier’,” Tanith replied with a sigh, “but I see your point. Anyway. You ran into her in a Quidditch practice. And escorted her to the Hospital Wing after some twat hit her in the face with a Bludger. So sweet.” She briefly adopted an expression of mock-nausea before grinning at him.

 

“And then you failed to talk to her in any coherent manner at the pub last week,” Gabriel continued, seeming much more at ease now they were putting pressure on someone else. “Instead talking about Quidditch statistics and the abilities of the latest Nimbus model.”

 

“You just love rubbing that in, don’t you,” Cal groaned, rubbing his temples. “I know. I’m inept. We’ve covered that.”

 

“Does she still have your hankie? Did you manage to at least reclaim your own property, or was that also beyond you?” Tanith challenged.

 

“I couldn’t think of a way to ask for it that didn’t sound rude. Despite the fact that Tobias had equipped me with the correct line. I sort of forgot it once actually face to face with…”

 

“Oh, God! You’ve never had a girlfriend!” Tanith declared at once, loud enough that a few of the other students lounging in the grass a short way away looked in their direction sharply.

 

Cal gave her a slightly horrified look. “No. No, I haven’t. Why did you have to bring that up? So loudly?”

 

“I forgot!” Tanith said, finally clamping her hand over her mouth and lowering her voice. “Sorry! I’m sorry! I just… forgot that you have zero experience at any of this.”

 

“Whereas you are the master of emotional maturity and coherent relationships,” Cal muttered resentfully.

 

“We’ll be getting to me later. Now the problem is you.”

 

“The problem’s always me.” Cal rubbed his temples in a long-suffering manner. “No. I haven’t had a girlfriend before. Yes. She’s the first girl I’ve… y’know. Noticed. Can we move on?”

 

“We’re not judging,” Tanith said firmly.

 

“Much,” Gabriel added helpfully.

 

“It just helps us know where we stand. It’s not that you’re dumb and inept, it’s that you’re inexperienced.” Tanith straightened up, looking intently at Cal. “We’re going to have to coach you.”

 

“Do I really want your advice? The last person you went out with was Miles Bletchley. Neither of you have actually had a jot of romance since the Yule Ball. No, Tanith, an issue with Tobias doesn’t count.” Cal glared at them both.

 

Tanith looked at Gabriel with a slightly dejected air. “He has a point. The idea that Tobias is the most romantically successful of the four of us is a rather depressing prospect.”

 

Gabriel waved a hand dismissively. “An irrelevant concern.” He leaned up slightly to rest on his elbows, looking at Cal. “We still know more than you. You still suck.”

 

“We covered that.”

 

“And so you should listen to our wisdom.” Gabriel smirked.

 

“Unfortunately, the only wisdom we can really give is that you’ve got to suck it up, still.” Tanith ran a hand through her hair, looking thoughtful. “Be nice. Friendly. Charming. All of that stuff. Maybe I should talk to Chang, see if I can manipulate the girly grapevine.”

 

“Girly grapevine?” Cal frowned.

 

“Ask her friends. Ask her friends of her friends. Find out if she likes you. That’ll leave you much better equipped.” Tanith waved a hand casually. “There’s a whole operation we can undertake to make sure that you don’t go in for a conversation with her unprepared.”

 

“I never knew there was so much organisation needed for chatting up a girl,” Cal sighed, scratching the back of his head. “Is this all really necessary?”

 

“Do you really fancy hunting her down right now and trying to talk to her?” she challenged.

 

Cal winced. “Point taken.”

 

“Loser,” Gabriel muttered, grinning at his friend, before sitting up and leaning forward, actually looking like he might have something productive to offer. “Also, the Quidditch match will be coming up in a few weeks. She’ll definitely see you play then. And when you beat Gryffindor…”

 

If, Gabe, if,” Cal muttered.

 

When. She’ll just have to swoon at you for what an amazing Beater you are.” Gabriel grinned triumphantly. “Easy as pie.”

 

Tanith nodded. “I like it. I’ll test the ground first, see if this is a no-go. Anything other than an ‘ugh’ is a win, trust me on this. Then you just wow her with your Quidditch prowess. As she seems to like that.”

 

“Easy as pie?” Cal repeated, looking a little forlorn.

 

“Absolutely.” Tanith said this with a firm, tight nod. “It’s all easy.”

 

“So considering it’s that easy, and considering this means we’re done with me, as I basically just have to play Quidditch and be ‘funny’, that suggests we’re on to you, Tan. Is it as easy with Tobias?” There was a slight edge to Cal’s voice, hinting at his irritation at how casually they had treated his problems.

 

Tanith’s expression did flicker, darkening very briefly, and when she did speak her voice was rather tight. “I’m sorry for laughing at you, Cal. It was an honest mistake. Are you going to try and help me, like I’m going to help you, or are you going to make snide comments?”

 

There was a brief pause as Cal grimaced, then he glanced over at Gabriel. “Is it me, or is she much better behaved when she’s trying to get us to behave?” he asked, his slightly whimsical tone covering up his degree of shame from the insult.

 

“Someone has to be sensible around here, and I’m not sure it should be me,” Tanith replied, her gaze flickering across to the lake. There was a small silence as the boys fell quiet, discomfort and patience prompting her to make the next move. Which she did, after a small sigh and beginning to play with her hair a little nervously.

 

“I’ve never liked MacKenzie. Even before. But there were bigger fish to fry; more obnoxious Gryffindor. Still, she’s friends with the rather self-righteous Riley and hangs around with that certain crowd. I remember when Tobias started that fight last year with McLaggen, when they were all about to crucify you, Cal, over your dad. She sided with all of her friends, because it was easy.”

 

The other two remained silent, only briefly exchanging glances in dark recollection of that incident, and not stopping her from continuing. “And she dumped Tobias last March, again because it was… easy. I think she’s weak. I think she’s cowardly. I think she’s bad news.”

 

She looked over at them at last, expression glum. “And I don’t think he’ll listen to me.”

 

Cal sighed, scratching his chin and feeling a hint of stubble there. “Probably not,” he said slowly. “Perhaps because when you start to talk about Annie with him, you get outright offensive and that makes him shut down.”

 

“What, me telling the truth makes him shut down?” Tanith muttered bitterly. “She’s just going to screw him up again. The moment things get tough, the moment the crowd turns against him, she’ll dump him. And then it’ll be up to me to pick up the pieces. Again.”

 

Gabriel just looked very uncomfortable, but Cal rolled onto his back, expression thoughtful. “I didn’t think you minded picking up the pieces.”

 

“I don’t. Toby’s my friend. I want to help him. I don’t want to see him setting himself up for more shit. And the fact that he won’t listen to me when I can warn him of what’s going to happen just makes it worse,” Tanith continued, scowling at the sky. Then she glanced briefly over at them, expression curious. “Can’t… one of you talk to him?”

 

Cal shook his head fervently. “Oh, no.” Both of them straightened up and shifted away slightly. “He’s funny when it comes to MacKenzie, you know this,” Cal insisted. “He’s so blinded by the idea that we’re judging her ‘cos she’s a Gryffindor that he can’t think that we’re judging her ‘cos of what she’s done.”

 

“Even if she has been a bit of a bitch,” Gabriel agreed.

 

“But she’s not that bad! She’s funny, and she’s pretty cool,” Cal said, shrugging and looking a little torn. “They’re… good together when they’re good. He lightens up. You know this.” He looked at Tanith a little forlornly.

 

“He does lighten up,” she agreed, sighing deeply. “I just… don’t really know what I can do. I don’t want to sit by and watch it all go wrong. Again.”

 

Gabriel shook his head. “Apart from challenge her yourself, I don’t know what else you can do but wait for it to go wrong and pick up the pieces of Tobias when it’s all over.”

 

Tanith fell silent at this, picking at blades of grass, and there was a long pause which passed between the three of them before Gabriel leaned over his Transfiguration textbook again. “…self-Transfiguration?”

 

Cal looked briefly at the quiet Tanith, who looked as if she’d drifted off to another world, before glancing back at Gabriel and nodding firmly. “Animal based. So if we want the points, then we want to do something… ambitious.”

 

“Better narrow it down, first,” Gabriel said, flicking through the book idly, seeming to be looking more at the diagrams than reading the words. “Figure out if we want to be… what, bird, beast, fish…”

 

“Can’t be a fish, we might die in the classroom,” Cal said with a sigh. “Though swimming would be ace.”

 

“What about something that can swim but breathe? Like a duck?” Gabriel chuckled, looking up as he considered this notion. “Ducks have, like, the best of all worlds. They can swim, they can walk, they can fly. They’ve got it all, sea, air and land.”

 

Cal snorted at this, despite himself. “Are you telling me that ducks are the SEAL special forces of the animal kingdom?” he sniggered.

 

“The what?”

 

“It’s a Muggle thing,” Cal said, not noticing Tanith glance up as a group made their way out of the doorway and approached the crowd by the lake, seeming set to join in the last hopes of fun in the sun. “They’re… military types who do secret missions. Don’t over-think it. Ducks are hardcore. That’s the important thing.”

 

“It would be complicated,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, frowning over the book and squinting at the next diagram. “It looks harder to change arms to wings than to just make them like legs…”

 

His voice trailed off as Tanith stood up abruptly, unexpectedly, and strode off. The two stared at one another for a second before looking to where she was heading, and Cal swore under his breath as he noticed that the new group were Gryffindors of their year, and that she was making a bee-line for Annie MacKenzie.

 

“Um. Should we stop her?” Gabriel asked, squinting in the sun. “Or do you think she’ll hex us to death?”

 

“Do you really want to find out? Shit, I thought you were kidding when you said to take it up with MacKenzie!” Cal hissed, staring over in the direction of the potential scene. “But it’s not like there’s much we can do about it.” He paused as his eyes landed on Wilson and McLaggen, lingering with their fellow Gryffindors by the lake. “Besides,” he continued conspiratorially. “I have an idea…”

 

It was unlikely Tanith would have heeded their efforts to get her to stop, so severe was the twist in her gut as she walked over to the group of Gryffindors. Instinct alone had seen her stand up and head in their direction when she’d seen them, a sudden urge to do something – anything – about this accursed situation. And, halfway there, she wasn’t sure she could back down, aware that a few pairs of eyes were on her, and that it was probably quite clear what was on her mind.

 

She couldn’t chicken out. Pride alone wouldn’t let her break her course.

 

It felt like someone else was in control of her limbs as she strode up to the group of Gryffindors, ignoring the curiosity in the eyes of Riley, and looked straight at MacKenzie, doing her best to block out the others. “MacKenzie. Can we talk?”

 

It wasn’t phrased as a question, and Annie didn’t look entirely surprised, simply nodding mutely and following her off to one side, by the building and a good bit away from the gathered students. Not out of sight, but safely out of earshot for a good conversation that might include raised voices.

 

“What can I do for you, Cole?” Her tone was flat and a little cold, and she folded her arms across her chest, body language and tone making it quite clear she was not in a tolerant mood.

 

“What do you think?” Tanith demanded rhetorically, already bored of the idea of mincing her words. “I need to talk to you about Tobias. You and Tobias, specifically.”

 

“I wasn’t aware that Tobias and I were any of your business,” Annie said, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Tobias is my friend. He’s been my friend for a long time. And I don’t want to see him get hurt.” Simple facts seemed to be a good place to start, the accusations not bold and outright but certainly present.

 

Annie paused at this, eyes scanning the lake for a second of thoughtfulness. “What makes you think he’s going to get hurt?” she asked, the genuine curiosity in her voice accompanied by a rod of iron.

 

“Oh, I don’t know… the fact that you screwed him up last time because of what your friends thought?” Tanith didn’t bother keeping the bite out of her voice this time.

 

Annie’s eyes flashed as she glared back. “That was a mistake. I know this now. I knew it at the time… look, I wouldn’t have tried to get him back if I didn’t want things to be different. I’m not a sadist, you know.”

 

“No, just weak, and a damn coward.” Tanith took a step forward, jaw clenched. “You didn’t see what he was like after you broke up with him. You didn’t have to pick the pieces up, help him get through it. And now I won’t just sit by and let you do it to him again the second it gets tough!”

 

“And I’m sure it was such a hardship for you, being the shoulder for him to cry on!” Annie snapped back, hands on hips.

 

Tanith paused, eyes narrowing. “What’s that supposed to mean, exactly?” she demanded archly, voice growing icy.

 

Annie paused, rolling her eyes. “Oh… never mind, you oblivious…” She sighed, her voice trailing off, before she looked her in the eye. “Look. I don’t want to fight with you. You’re Toby’s friend, and, believe it or not, I actually want it to work with him this time. I know I screwed up before. We’re working through this. I’ve asked him to give me another chance, and… he’s agreed.”

 

“More fool him,” Tanith muttered.

 

“That fool being your best friend,” Annie said. “And if he’s such a good friend to you, then I’d think you’d trust his judgement. If only so we’re not clawing at each other every five seconds, I’d think you’d give me a chance like he has.”

 

“He’s… trusting,” Tanith said, stumbling over her words, feeling her debating footing beginning to give way underneath her and scrabbling for firmer ground in this sliding argument. “Someone needs to watch his back.”

 

“So you’re now his self-appointed watchdog who knows better than him?” Annie tilted her head to one side. “Are you actually listening to me, or are you just believing what you want to believe?”

 

“I want Tobias to be happy,” Tanith said, slowing down a little with a degree of suspicion creeping in. “If I thought you were actually good for him, I wouldn’t be here…”

 

“You had me judged and pigeon-holed within ten seconds of the New Year’s festival, before you even knew me as anything more than a random Gryffindor. You were lashing out at me from day one.” Annie’s hands were on her hips, expression dark. “I have explained myself, and I have given you a chance to be reasonable. But I don’t have to put up with this bullshit.”

 

Tanith paused, squinting for a second. “Hang on. When did I become the bad guy in this?”

 

“Since you shot Toby down at the ball two years ago and started acting like a jealous psycho if he so much as looked at another girl.” Here, Annie seemed to be hitting her stride, self-restraint down the pan and clearly with a lot to offload. “Since you began to interfere with his chances of happiness with someone else, but heaven forefend you actually take the risk with your own emotions.”

 

Tanith stared at her obliviously. “I have no idea what you’re…”

 

“And then you come tromping down here, expecting me to cower in the face of the great Tanith Cole and her amazing intimidation skills, and cow-tow to your rage like everyone else does. But you’re… what? You’re nothing. You won’t step up to the plate with him, but you don’t want anyone else to have him either.”

 

“I am trying,” Tanith said, desperately attempting to steer this conversation back on course, “to look out for him. I don’t know what you’re on about, but my interests are purely directed at his wellbeing. You know what he’s like, he’s idealistic and ultimately trusting, and… what?” Her voice trailed off again, this time interrupted by Annie’s incredulous expression rather than more terse words.

 

“You honestly have no idea, do you,” Annie breathed, eyes rather wide and astonished.

 

“About what, MacKenzie?” Irritation crept in at last, born of confusion of her erratic manner.

 

“You. Tobias.” Annie shook her head slightly. “You really do think that this is about him. You really haven’t realised how much you’ve fallen for him.”

 

“What?” Tanith stared at her, images rising unbidden to the front of her mind of almost two weeks ago, lounging in the common room, their bodies so close together, his lips inches from her… she hadn’t known what she was thinking then, hadn’t let herself assess it afterwards. She’d just been half-awake, acting almost on instinct, and it had just seemed… right. At the time. Afterwards, she’d shoved it in that box, let him deal with it as he had been the one to be more interested in something else, someone else, anything other than her… as always distracted by whatever ideal or cause had his attention at the time, as always caring more about that than…

 

But, still. MacKenzie was just talking crazy. But how to say that without further antagonising her and thus prompting repetition of this insane idea?

 

“You’re talking crazy,” she said flatly.

 

“Look,” Annie said levelly, a lot more placidly now she’d come to some sort of incorrect realisation. “You’re just going to have to accept that Toby and I are an item. I’m sorry, but that’s not going to change. And you can go with it, let things work, help everyone be happy, get over it. Or you can continue to fight. And remember how much he listened to you about us last time?”

 

Bugger and all, Tanith recalled glumly. “You’re trouble,” she said, but there was no real conviction there, all of the wind taken out of her sails by the mindless accusations and MacKenzie grabbing the wrong end of the stick.

 

“And toil, but, y’know, witch.” Annie shrugged, shaking her head. “Just… think about it, Cole. I don’t want to be your enemy. You’re important to Toby. And I know he’s important to you.” Tanith didn’t like the particular emphasis on words there. “There’s more that unites us than divides us, and what divides us only does so if we let it.”

 

She extended a hand towards her, and in that second all Tanith could see was a patronising light in her eyes, a glint of smug superiority. She thinks she’s won. She thinks that just because she has him…

 

…why do you care that she has him?

 

Tanith didn’t say anything as she left, didn’t look her in the eye or even give the offered hand a derisive glance. Just turned away and began to stride back towards the lake, feeling like her brain was covered in cotton wool and it was beginning to be cleared away in parts.

 

It’s just Tobias. You want him to be okay. MacKenzie’s hurt him before, she’ll do it again, you know this. You’re just trying to look out for him…

 

…then why did you almost kiss him?

 

He almost kissed me! Then he broke away! I won’t go trailing around after someone that easily distracted like some lovesick…

 

“Onward, my War Duck! Chaaarge!”

 

Gabriel’s voice broke through her reverie through both volume and absurdity, and she looked up to see two figures hurtling through the crowds by the lake and making a bee-line for the gathering of Gryffindors that she’d extracted Annie from.

 

Gabriel was on Cal’s shoulders, waving his wand in the air and shooting out harmless sparks, but that wasn’t the strangest part. The strangest part was Cal, who was stooped over, running fast, and… feathery. The transfiguration to duck form wasn’t perfect, but his arms were more like wings, his feet yellow and webbed, and his head definitely avian, and beaked. All in all, about the only flaw she could see was that this duck was over six feet tall, and slightly more human in shape than perhaps accurate. In fact, the only way she could tell it was Cal at all was the silver and green tie around the large duck-man’s neck, and the fact that the Welshman was otherwise not in sight.

 

There wasn’t very long to assess this, however, as the two of them burst into the middle of the group of Gryffindors. Gabriel leapt from Cal’s duck-like form to tackle Nick Wilson in a flying charge, where Cal batted his wings at McLaggen and knocked him into the lake, jumping after him with an aggressive “Quack, bitch!”

 

Students went everywhere, fleeing the fight and most in uncontrolled laughter at the ridiculous scene. Riley was shouting at all of them to stop, Tom Everard looked like he wanted to assist her but was too busy sniggering, and Bletchley and Pucey had magically appeared on the scene, cheering Cal and Gabriel on and eyeballing any Gryffindors who looked like they might attempt to assist their housemates.

 

Doubtless a teacher would arrive soon enough to break up the scrap, but in the meantime the scene was ridiculous and somewhat hilarious. Tanith, however, had very little mind for laughter at that point, and instead decided that now was the time to take advantage of the bizarreness, collect her affairs, and slump back to the common room.

 

It seemed she needed a chance to think.

Chapter 17: The Masks We Wear
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Chapter 16: The Masks We Wear


 

“There. See? Isn’t this much more civilised?”

 

Tanith wasn’t sure if she wanted to agree or cry as she was half-carried towards the Quidditch stands, flanked by Ariane and Melanie who were linking arms with her in a most girly and, in her opinion, most undignified fashion. All around them bustled the rest of the Slytherins, everyone with at least a scarf demonstrating House colours, some bearing larger flags and banners, everyone with their focus on one thing.

 

For today was a Quidditch day.

 

“Civilised? Maybe. Moderately scary? Definitely. We look like a coven of evil,” Tanith muttered, wishing she could pull her arms free so she could tighten the scarf around her neck to guard against the chill of the wind. Unfortunately, any effort to free her arms would immediately be interpreted as an effort at escape, and Melanie for one had an iron grip on her.

 

“All the better to scare the Gryffindors,” Melanie said with a small cackle. “If they think we’re actually evil incarnate, we might as well make the most of it.”

 

“Now, now, Mel, we have to demonstrate a degree of… restraint. Superiority.” Ariane smiled superciliously. “Just to remind them who’s better.”

 

“I thought you said this was going to be a fun morning, not a morning of proving that we’re so much better than the Gryffs,” Tanith bemoaned. The fact that, before Ariane had ambushed her at the breakfast table when Cal had gone off to get ready, she’d been anticipating spending her day doing exactly that was irrelevant. Before, the plan had been to hurl insults and maybe the odd bit of debris from the stalls at Gryffindors. Now she was going to have to practice looking down her nose at them, and when you weren’t very tall that just tended to give you a crick in your neck.

 

“And that’s not fun?” Melanie grunted, grinning.

 

“We’ve got to at least rescue Doyle. Otherwise he’ll be stuck with Montague all morning, and that might drive him to dashing his brains out in search for something more exciting than any conversation that could foster.” Tanith sighed, glancing up and down the crowds as they drew closer to the stands. By now, the masses had blended into an array of all of the Houses, and so they seemed trapped in a sea of golds, silvers, reds, and greens, before the pupils filtered off to their own sections.

 

“Is it me,” she wondered at last, frowning as something began to tug at her mind, “or is there a lot more green than usual?”

 

“Aside from us, Tobias and the aforementioned Gabriel and Edmund are going to be the only Slytherins in the stand who actually remember the last time Slytherin beat Gryffindor,” Ariane said with a sigh suggesting that their lot in life was so very cruel.

 

“So no bugger’s going to be seen dead not pushing snake pride to the limit.” Melanie nodded.

 

Well. There are exceptions, of course, Tanith noted darkly as she saw Tobias and Annie ahead, by the steps up to the nearest stand, being far friendlier than was acceptable. Certainly far friendlier than was acceptable between a Gryffindor and a Slytherin on match-day.

 

It was Melanie who noticed the death-glares this little scene prompted, and so she didn’t slow down, instead steering the little committee on towards the next set of steps, far away from something that could prompt an explosion. “We’re not thinking about that today,” she said, firmly but not unkindly, as they continued.

 

“Thinking about what?” Ariane, quite often not as sharp as she was beautiful, asked before her mind finally finished its marathon sprint to the conclusion everyone else had reached and she gave a despairing sigh. “Oh, Tobias Grey, really. Salazar Slytherin must be rolling in his grave,” she murmured to herself as she glanced back.

 

“That? That’s a lack of not thinking about this,” Melanie said sharply as the three of them ascended the steps to join the masses of Slytherin House in their stand.

 

“I’m just saying that it’s rather unfitting for a Slytherin prefect, Head Boy to boot, to be fraternising with someone from an opposing House on Quidditch day, even if he does happen to have a regularly scheduled fumble behind the Herbology houses with her,” Ariane continued obliviously, by now quite clearly lost in her own little world of self-righteousness as she steered the three of them through the masses, running over small first-years and knocking aside anyone else with sheer estrogen in the hunt for the best seats.

 

Tanith idly wondered if the fall from the stalls to the ground below would kill her, and a quick glance in Melanie’s direction suggested the other girl was wondering something similar – or, perhaps, whether the fall would kill Ariane.

 

They let the taller girl witter on about the impropriety of it all until they found seats right near the front, pushing aside some sulky fourth-years so there was enough space. From this vantage point they could see the whole of the pitch spread out before them, and were perfectly positioned to see the glorious Slytherin victory.

 

They hoped.

 

“I wonder if Potter will get some debilitating injury again. He’s good for that, at least,” Melanie said wistfully, with no small dose of hope in her voice.

 

“I’m sure Draco will be able to best him.” Ariane paused, her perfect nose crinkling after a moment. “One of these days.”

 

“Draco’s not playing,” Tanith said, trying to rub circulation back into her arms now she’d been released. “He’s ill, or can’t be arsed, or something.”

 

Melanie looked over sharply. “What? Since when?”

 

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Cal mentioned it at breakfast. Apparently Urquhart’s furious, but Harper’s subbing for him.”

 

There was a stunned silence that met this, before Melanie looked down at the large brooch of a snake on the front of her coat. It was huge and garish, and thus had no place anywhere other than in displaying Quidditch fanaticism, but she took it off with a sigh. “Well. We’re fucked.”

 

“Oh, have a little bit of stamina to you, Mel, really,” Ariane scolded. “I’m sure Jack’s picked a wonderfully talented substitute who’s been perfectly well trained. Potter’s not unbeatable.”

 

“The only guy who beat him is dead.” Melanie paused, then snorted as a thought occurred. “Hey, do you think it wasn’t You-Know-Who who offed Diggory at all, but Potter for that time he got the Snitch first?”

 

Tanith rolled her eyes, finally reminded of the reason why she and Melanie weren’t better friends: the utter banality that often came out of her mouth. “Urquhart kind of saw this coming. He’s expected Harper to have to first-bench a few matches this year, what with Draco being as reliable as four day-old milk. It’s been planned for.”

 

“More pearls of wisdom from Cal?” Melanie said.

 

“Miles, actually. Draco’s been skipping loads of practices, apparently. Harper’s practically first Seeker anyway.” Tanith shrugged.

 

Ariane raised an eyebrow, looking at her curiously. “So you’ve been having discussions with Miles about Quidditch, have you?” she asked, with the worst attempt in the world to cover up her interest.

 

Tanith narrowed her eyes as she scanned the stalls. “I know I asked this earlier… but, really, there’s a lot more green than usual,” she observed in a desperate bid to change the subject.

 

Gryffindors were resplendent in their house’s colour, and the same for Slytherin, as expected. But Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws kept their banners for their own matches, and pupils of non-participating Houses tended to just root for whoever they fancied on any given day. For the longest time, especially in the wake of Slytherin’s unbroken cup record before Saint Potter, this meant that three-quarters of the stalls would be brandishing red and gold.

 

This time was different. This time it was only slightly more than half.

 

“You’re right,” Ariane said, frowning as she looked around. “There’s an awful lot more Slytherin colours than normal. Mostly from the Ravenclaw stands, look.”

 

“Well, bugger me. A war’s going on, and even though they think we’re bad to the bone they still root for us in Quidditch,” Melanie observed eloquently.

 

“I suppose nobody likes a winner who keeps on winning. Chang and Summerby have been talking about how the seasons are getting rather dull with Gryffindor taking the Cup year after year,” Tanith said, scratching her head in recollection. “And, well, scuttlebutt has it Urquhart’s put together the best team to beat Potter’s.”

 

She glanced at the other two, pausing as she realised they were staring at her with mixed expressions of horror, fascination, and confusion.

 

“What?”

 

“‘Scuttlebutt’?” Melanie made a face.

 

Tanith sighed. “I’ve been spending too much time with Cal. The grapevine. Rumour mill. You know.”

 

“I know, just… never say that word again.” Ariane shuddered melodramatically, but seemed to get over it rather quickly as a girlish squeal escaped her mouth and she clapped her hands together excitedly. “Ooh, here they come!”

 

The stands erupted into a roar – and Tanith could swear she heard an actual roar from somewhere in the direction of the Ravenclaw stands – as the two teams jogged out onto the pitch, gathering in the centre before Madam Hooch and lining up before one another.

 

“Come on, Cal. Give us a win,” she murmured under her breath, praying to whatever forces of magic were out there that the winds of change were at their backs.

 

“Rip his little scarred face off, Jack!” Melanie shouted with much less composure next to her as the two team captains, rather small even from this distance but with the difference in size plain to see, stepped up to shake hands.

 

“Now, now, Mel,” Ariane said soothingly, calm even as the whistle went and the match began on the pitch and all around them. “We don’t shout and rave. We sit, we watch, we are superior. We are above all of this petty screaming and ranting. We are austere in victory, and even in defeat.”

 

Less than an hour later, as the whistle went and Potter tore across the skies victoriously gripping his fifth Snitch from a Slytherin match, Ariane was practically standing on the barrier in between her and a fifty-foot drop, shaking a fist at his broom and screeching “Just do us all a fucking favour and fall off your broom and break your neck, you little shit!

 

Bitter defeat, Tanith reflected darkly, was starting to become a familiar taste in her mouth.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

The Slytherin common room was bathed in glowing green light of the rays of the setting sun filtered through waters of the lake, giving the entire chamber an eerie, almost ethereal quality. In times of euphoria, this effect would often foster a closer atmosphere, a sensation of proximity that would only heighten collective joy.

 

This wasn’t such a time, and in the wake of the Quidditch defeat, the room only seemed gloomy and ominous.

 

Stacks of snacks and butterbeer which had been hoarded in premature anticipation of a victory party were littered about the room, students picking at them with either disinterest or solemnity. The groups of Slytherins in various corners seemed to have either firmly moved on from the day’s defeat to be talking about something completely different, or were outright moping.

 

And, in the centre of the room, on the biggest table, Jack Urquhart poked and prodded at his diagrams and his tactics and his little animated figures and arrows and tried, for the umpteenth time, to figure out where they’d gone wrong.

 

“Weasleys,” he said at last with a sigh, looking up across the table at Cal, the only other member of the team who had been stayed to indulge in this exercise in self-flagellation. “We were ready for everything but the bloody Weasleys.”

 

Cal sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands. “Nobody could have anticipated a Keeper on such top form. It was practically inhuman, Jack.”

 

“But not unbeatable,” Urquhart grunted as he prodded a piece of paper, and the little diagrams moved to display the third at goal of the match that had been blocked. “What made it unbeatable were those Chasers. Enter Weasley the second.”

 

“Thought we’d have an easy time of things after getting rid of those twins, and look what happens.” Cal scowled.

 

“They lost their golden trio. Johnson, Spinnet, Bell. Not a one of them on the pitch today. Not a single Chaser out there who had seen a match actually as a Chaser. And they ran rings around us.” Urquhart swore under his breath as he moved on to reconstruct further plays of the game, eyes running over every detail in evaluation. Cal wasn’t sure if he’d had charms to record the match, or was doing all of this from memory – either way, it looked like the game would be burned into the Captain’s mind by the end of the night.

 

“Same with the Beaters.” Cal sighed. “I mean, we had them under control. They weren’t game-changing.”

 

“But it was all you two could do to keep things even. Still, keep your chin up, Cal. I’d say our Beaters were the only guys on the pitch today who were better than their team was.” Jack’s scowl deepened. “Two people in their team playing in position. And they beat our much more seasoned team.”

 

“They were unknown entities, Jack. We’d never seen them play before, we had absolutely no idea what tactics the Chasers would use, what defensive or offensive patterns they would rely upon.” Cal shrugged. Though defeat rested heavily in his belly, he didn’t fancy beating himself up over the issue for the rest of the year. On the other hand, he didn’t want to watch Urquhart doing so, either.

 

“I’ve never seen a Chaser like that Weasley girl,” Urquhart said with a sigh, not seeming to have heard him. “I remember the old Gryffindor golden trio, I remember Flint, Montague and Pucey when they were at their best. I remember Roger Davies. But Ginny Weasley…”

 

He shook his head before glancing up, Cal’s words finally seeming to be sinking in. “We need to be more innovative if they’re anticipating our tactics. We need to start again from scratch, completely deconstruct our methods and build this from the ground up.” Urquhart frowned again as he looked down at the paper, but that familiar glint of thoughtfulness had sparked again in his eyes, and Cal could practically see the cogs working in his head.

 

“Of course,” he breathed. “I’ve been so stupid about this. I’ve been following the tactics of Montague and Flint. They kept bloody losing… no wonder.” With a quick wave of the wand, the parchment cleared, and Urquhart leaned over it again, scribbling in the air to bring up fresh markings, a clean new set of notes and diagrams. “We have to build it around this team… not around what’s been before…”

 

Cal leaned back as Urquhart began to work, the defeat of the day already forgotten to him as he began to look towards the next match, the next training session. Within a few minutes it became clear that his presence was no longer needed, and so with a small grin at the younger boy’s increased enthusiasm, he stepped away from the table and headed for the door.

 

He could have ambled towards where Tanith and Gabriel sat, reading and chatting idly, but the recent bitterness from both of them was not what his mood needed right then. He could have headed off to join Tobias, hard at work on an essay in a corner, but monosyllabic grunting from a distracted academic did not strike him as a particularly riveting way to spend his time.

 

A walk on his own sounded preferable, and he felt his mood lift immediately the moment he stepped out of the dungeon, allowing the stone to slide back into place behind him, blocking off the melancholy and depression of the day’s defeat.

 

He almost bumped into the lofty form of Tobias as he turned the corner into the corridor, but a Beater’s reflexes saw him screeching to a halt and reaching out to steady the taller, but less sturdier boy. “Woah, there, Toby. Less hasty. The common room’s not all so cool you should be running in there.”

 

Tobias paused, grinning ruefully, and nudged his glasses up his nose. “All fun and games and cheer in there?” he asked.

 

Cal fought back a bristling which threatened at his apparent disregard for the Quidditch result. He’d probably reaped the rewards of a thrilled girlfriend and the appearance of being magnanimous in defeat. Hell, for him, it was probably a better result. But it wasn’t entirely Tobias’ fault he just had no brains for Quidditch.

 

“I’d suggest wiping the grin off your face before you go in,” he said, not unkindly. “There’s a lot of disappointment.”

 

Tobias nodded, considering this. “Alright. I don’t want to really upset Jack, I guess. He worked hard.”

 

“Jack’s off in his own world, but it might set…” Cal clamped down on the words as they tried to spill out, fatigue harming his natural caution, but it was too little, too late, and within seconds Tobias’ expression had twisted with irritation.

 

“…might set Tanith off?” he finished, scowling. “For how long am I going to have to creep around like Annie and I are a crime?”

 

Cal blinked. For all his caution, this was not the reaction he’d expected. “I dunno, mate, but if you want to go toe-to-toe with her on the matter, be my guest. And just warn me so I can be somewhere else.”

 

Tobias made a short, irritated noise and looked away sharply. “I don’t want to go toe-to-toe with her. I want her to be my damn friend who I can talk to and not have to ignore the elephant in the corner…”

 

Cal’s breath hissed between his teeth. “That’s going to be difficult so long as you’re going out with someone she doesn’t like. And, well.. I don’t mean to pry, but she’s got a point. Mac did screw you up last time.” Mentally, he braced himself for the reaction.

 

“No.” Tobias, surprisingly, sounded disappointed rather than angry. “I mean, yes, she did. And I get why you’re concerned, Cal, and I appreciate it. But we’ve talked, and it’s not going to happen again. We’re getting past it. Surely that’s a good thing?”

 

“Well…”

 

He didn’t get a chance to respond as Tobias continued, seeming to be hitting his stride. “And I’d be a lot less bothered by Tanith’s behaviour if that was why she was being pissy about Annie. But it’s not the reason, is it.”

 

Cal paused. Now they were stepping on very dangerous territory. “It’s what she’s said,” he commented neutrally. “And I wouldn’t want to guess at anything else.”

 

“It’s not the reason,” Tobias repeated. “So, you know, I’m a bit pissed off that she’s using concern for me as a cover up for her ego.”

 

Cal blinked. “Her ego?”

 

“And her territorialism,” Tobias muttered, his voice by now venomous and his focus not seeming to be entirely on the conversation. “I’m sick of it. She’s got to be top dog, doesn’t she? She just can’t cope with it when things aren’t revolving around her. That we’re not revolving around her. I’ve got Annie. You’re… well… talking to Lockett. Kind of. Gabe is… I mean, he’s Gabe, but…”

 

“You think Tanith’s pissed because she’s losing you to Annie.” Cal watched him levelly for a moment, allowing the words to roll over in his head, and feeling the faintest amusement at how close Tobias could be whilst still being oblivious.

 

“It’s petty. And it’s selfish. And I’m not going to tolerate it.” Tobias folded his arms across his chest. “So if I want to go into the damn common room and say ‘yes, I spent the day with my girlfriend’, I’m going to, and her temper be damned!”

 

Cal straightened up, gaze still calm. “…are you going to?”

 

Tobias paused, then sagged. “No. Because I’m too tired to deal with it, not because I don’t dare or anything.”

 

“…alright. You do that.” Cal shook his head and clapped his friend on his back. “I’m going to take a walk. Clear my head. You know.”

 

“I… yeah. Alright.” Tobias grimaced. “Sorry, Cal, I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry you guys lost. I know you worked at it.”

 

He shrugged. “Always another day.” Then he was off, quite contented to leave Tobias, potential bickers with Tanith, and the rest of the miserable common room behind him, mind singing with Quidditch more than it was singing with personal arguments.

 

His first match back on the team after that fateful argument with Flint about Malfoy’s ineptitude had been the one against Hufflepuff the previous term, subbed in to replace Goyle after Urquhart had staged what was practically a hostile takeover in light of Montague’s diminished brain capacity. They had won, and won big – which had been all but irrelevant in light of Gryffindor’s subsequent victory over Ravenclaw. That game hadn’t mattered, not really; they’d known that fate was out of their hands, and all they could do was set the board for a completely different match.

 

This had been different. He hadn’t felt like this since the match which had been his last, in his third year. And it came with it the same sinking sensation of defeat – only, this time, there was nobody on whom he could focus his anger. Nobody he could blame. No Malfoy to pin responsibility on, and no stupid Captain whose mistakes he could point the finger at.

 

They just weren’t good enough.

 

Somehow, that stung more. That for all of the hours of training, all of the effort spent… Gryffindor had still been better.

 

He’d just been letting his feet carry him as he wandered, robes wrapped tightly around him to guard against the chilly wind of bright but cold day as winter marched on. So it was with a not small degree of surprise that, when he stepped outside and looked up and his feet came to a halt, he was gazing back across at the Quidditch pitch.

 

The automatic functions of his brain clearly had to hate him.

 

Or not, he thought suddenly as his eyes landed on the small specks in the sky that suggested an impromptu game, and the tiny flashes of blue amongst the fliers which hinted at Ravenclaws. Which meant…

 

His feet carried him up the stands, to a discreet corner sheltered from the wind where he could get a better view of the training of the Ravenclaw Quidditch team. This didn’t look like much of an official session – just a cheerful play, inspired by the game that afternoon, for love of the sport rather than technical perfection.

 

That was something he’d have to make sure Urquhart brought back into the training. Enjoyment of Quidditch for its own sake. Sometimes they lost sight of that, so wrapped up were they in their focus on the cup, and house pride, and victory. Forgot why they played at all.

 

Cal looked up mildly as a figure detached itself from the unkindness of Ravenclaws and began to descend towards him. For once, his stomach didn’t twist in that not-unpleasant manner as he recognised Lockett approaching – the ups and downs of the day had exhausted him emotionally to the point where just laying eyes on her wasn’t enough to see him have a fit.

 

It did lift his mood a bit though.

 

“They sent me down here to find out if you’re a spy,” Lockett said cheerfully as she stopped, hovering about six feet away, perched on her broomstick with very little care.

 

“Oh really?” Cal grinned toothily. “And how are you going to find this out?”

 

“I have a cunning plan.” She began to lower herself slowly, until she could hop off to be standing on the bench in front of him. “Are you a Slytherin spy?”

 

“Um… no.” He snorted wryly. “That’s your foolproof investigation technique?”

 

Lockett smiled and shrugged, and sighed as the joke got her a chuckle but no recognition. “Silly, silly magic-born types. You have no appreciation for the classics.”

 

“We’re back to stereotypes, remember? I thought you didn’t approve of those?” Cal tilted his head, expression challenging.

 

“Sometimes, the generalisations are right.” She turned back to the gathering of the others, and gave a big wave. “It’s alright, guys! He’s not going to steal our super-secret-special tactics!” she shouted, then sat herself down as there was a pause before Howlett waved back in acknowledgement.

 

“How’re you guys doing in the dungeon? Hope you’re not too bummed out at the result, it was a hell of a match.” She patted him on the knee familiarly, comfortingly, and that was enough to spark up that small twist within him.

 

And yet, not incapacitatingly so. “A hell of a match, and we lost,” Cal sighed. “But we’re okay. Urquhart’s going mad. I think he’s trying to deconstruct all Quidditch tactics ever in time for our match against you guys.”

 

“I’ll look forward to that. We like our unexpected tactics. Keeps the game fresh.” Lockett nodded to herself as she watched the Ravenclaws bob and weave up in the sky, Quaffle flying from player to player, practicing hard passes and flying stunts. “I enjoyed that from the game today. Urquhart shouldn’t be too hard on himself, you guys were technically flawless.”

 

“And, again, lost.” Cal scowled a little at this, speaking slightly sharper than he meant to – but sometimes it felt more patronising than reassuring to be told how wonderful one was in the face of defeat.

 

Lockett seemed to notice this, and made an apologetic face. “Sorry. Just… you were unlucky. I know first hand what it’s like to be face to face with Weasley, who you could generally count on being a bit of a dead weight in the Keeper spot, but who suddenly turns into the Quidditch equivalent of Sun Tzu.”

 

Cal blinked. “Who?”

 

“The Art of War? Muggle who was shit hot at tactics?” She sighed. “Don’t they teach you anything in Muggle Studies? First no Blackadder, then no crazy eastern men?”

 

“Where was he from?”

 

Lockett paused, looking at him. “Hm?”

 

“This Sun Tzu guy. Where was he from?”

 

“Uh… Asia?”

 

“Asia’s a big place, you know.”

 

“China. Japan. One of the two.”

 

“You have no idea, do you.”

 

“Hey, at least I knew who he was.” Lockett folded her arms across her chest and gave a mock-pout. “One up on you.”

 

“Then if you’re so much better, how come you’re wasting time with me, instead of playing with the others?” Cal glanced up at the still cavorting Ravenclaws. “They’re rather good, aren’t they.”

 

“Of course they are, they’re Ravenclaws. But I’ve played with them a thousand times. I’ve only talked to you twice. Barely. If you could nose-bleeds and the latest Nimbus models.” Lockett gave a small, sly smile, glancing sideways at him.

 

Cal felt heat rush to his face, and wondered if he looked as blatantly embarrassed as he felt. “Well, the Nimbus 2002 could well change the entire face of… okay, yeah, I’m going to stop talking now.” He scrubbed his face with his hands, partly to wipe fatigue away, partly to hide how mortified he was.

 

Lockett smiled, and he couldn’t help but note how her entire face seemed to light up with that one simple expression. “You always get this flustered when talking to girls?”

 

“Nope,” Cal said with more honesty and straightforwardness than he’d have liked, and before he could stop himself, looking her in the eye and then wondering if it would be possible to turn back time just so he was slightly more subtle.

 

“So you’re scared of the brainy ones?” Lockett leaned back, her smile softer now, more quietly pleased than outright amused, and put her feet up on the seat in front of her.

 

“I’m scared of the nice ones with a good sense of humour. I have difficulty assuming that there’s not trouble waiting round the corner.” Cal wasn’t entirely sure what part of him was talking, being so outright honest, but thought that maybe, just maybe, he should let this automatic mind of his stay in the driving seat for just a little longer.

 

Another chuckle from her. “Why’s that?”

 

“Well, I look at my friends and their romantic lives.” Cal slumped with a small sigh of aggravation. “And I see nothing but… bickering. Dissatisfaction. Arguments. Jealousy. The whole shebang.”

 

“To be fair, that’s because your friends are kind of uptight.” Nat gave him a small, impish grin which threatened to be rather infectious. “Tanith Cole seriously needs to switch to decaf. And Tobias Grey… well, he’s a wonderful example to us all about crossing boundaries between wizarding and non-wizarding folk…”

 

“Not as good as Adrian Pucey, an even better argument for mixing with Muggles or Muggle-born. He’s a walking warning against what happens when cousins marry,” Cal mumbled.

 

She laughed again, and he felt his heart sing quietly in response. “True enough. But Grey’s romance isn’t just a romance, it’s a statement. That can’t be easy. That can’t even be that much fun.”

 

“Wait a minute, these things are meant to be fun?” Cal asked with mock-surprise, glancing about as if he had no idea where this notion had come from. In doing so, his eyes went back towards the skies, and he suddenly noticed there wasn’t a broom in the air. “Hey… where’d they go?”

 

Nat looked up, raising an eyebrow briefly, then shrugging. “They must have headed off – it’s getting dark, we weren’t going to be playing all night.” She straightened up, making eye contact with him and not letting it go. “And… yeah, fun. You don’t look like you get enough of that. Which is a shame… you’re a fun guy.”

 

“Laugh a minute when I’m around.” Cal smirked, then tilted his head at her slightly. “You seem to know me pretty well, even after such short chats.”

 

“Not as well as I’d like to,” Nat said, quietly and honestly, and he couldn’t help but smile more softly at this. “And, well, you hardly know me at all.”

 

Cal paused, and in that moment realised that the automatic part of his brain, which had taken him here and thrown him headlong into this conversation without warning and without inserting his foot in his mouth, had abandoned him. He was completely on his own, without escape route, without a plan.

 

Somehow, he was alright with this.

 

He grinned broadly, looking her in the eye. “You know what? I’d like to fix that.”

 

Chapter 18: The Ides of March
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Chapter 17: The Ides of March


 

“I endorse this state of affairs. We should encourage it to continue.” Gabriel peered around the empty common room, leaning back in his overstuffed armchair with a satisfied sigh. “Peace. Quiet. Nobody to bother us.”

 

“It is all rather more civil than usual,” Tanith had to agree, spreading her Herbology textbooks and notes across the coffee table, just managing to not mingle them with his. “But such is the advantage of an irrelevant Quidditch match, where the more fanatical or less smart have to go off and watch it.”

 

“Just be glad Cal can’t hear you now.” Gabriel smirked. “Ravenclaw-Hufflepuff is going to be an integral game for this season. After all, it’s going to define who comes third place or fourth place in the rankings.”

 

Tanith just about smothered a laugh. “And Ravenclaw will win, because they’re more technically proficient and because Hufflepuff still won’t have recovered from losing O’Neal. Because they’re a bunch of duffers and haven’t moved on. Unlike, and I hate to say it, Gryffindor, who lost half of their team and had a Chaser taken out of action a matter of weeks before the match. And managed to win.”

 

“I think the ‘puffs are in some sort of extended mourning period.” Gabriel frowned, chewing on the edge of his quill before he began to scribble down some notes on the correct means to care for the latest poisonous and dangerous plant of the week.

 

“I think they’ve been in a mourning period since Diggory. Honestly, you’d have figured they’d have got over it by now.” Tanith rolled her eyes. “I heard they wanted to dedicate this match to O’Neal.”

 

“Really? That’s going to be a bit of a bummer, isn’t it, when Hufflepuff lose. Because you can say many things about Ravenclaws, but there’s no way they’ll be stupidly sentimental enough to throw the match over something like that.” Gabriel shook his head. “I reckon we’ve only got a couple of hours before Chang gets the Snitch.”

 

“Then we should make the most of it to enjoy this peace and quiet, rather than spending the time talking about a Quidditch match we’ve actively chosen to not go and watch, yes?” She smirked at him.

 

“And worry about how to best take care of Devil’s Snare without it growing to monstrous proportions, and/or murdering us in our sleep? A far more riveting proposition, Cole.”

 

“A good NEWT in Herbology will have far more benefits. Let’s not split hairs.” Tanith paused, sticking her quill behind her ear as she paused, flicking through one of the hefty tomes in front of her. “Why, oh why, did we take this subject?”

 

“Because we both needed a fifth NEWT and it’s a doss? Especially if you’re already doing Potions?” Gabriel grinned toothily at her. “The amount of work you can combine is quite staggering. And you, for one, have plenty on your academic plate without taking on a fifth NEWT that would actually challenge you.”

 

“That’s true enough. The essays from Snape and McGonagall are enough to drive anyone insane, and that’s ignoring everything else.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “I trust you’re still enjoying the House points you and Cal won for the duck incident?”

 

“At least nobody can say McGonagall’s biased against Houses. We were the first people in our year to succeed at a full-body transfiguration. We deserved those twenty points.” Gabriel paused, mulling this over. “And the two hours of detention. But it was totally worth it.”

 

“Cal seemed in a good mood about it all. Which is, well, good.” Tanith nodded to herself. “He seems to be a lot happier these days.”

 

“I won’t deny that there may have been some ulterior motives to allowing him to turn into a giant duck and attack Cormac McLaggen. I see absolutely no problem with this.” Gabriel’s grin returned.

 

“I’m behind this plan. I’m enthusiastic about this plan.”

 

“And at least it seems he’s been able to finally talk to Lockett.”

 

“Doing more than talking these days, if the rumour mill’s to be trusted. He’ll be in an even better mood if Ravenclaw win today. Celebrations, and all that.”

 

“Or consolations if they lose. It seemed to work for him,” Gabriel pointed out. “Plus, she seems to be alright.”

 

“Oh, I think Cal’s done quite well for himself with her,” Tanith agreed. “She’s a good laugh. No sticks up her arse, no uppityness. Just good fun. Good to talk to. Easy to get on with.”

 

Gabriel didn’t miss a beat before delivering his next, cautiously well-calculated move. “Unlike a certain Gryffindor of our acquaintance.”

 

Tanith froze at this, before looking up at him and retrieving her quill. She said nothing for a moment, then glanced back down at her work and began to scribble nonsense on the parchment. “Unlike. Yeah.”

 

“How’re you doing with all of that?” Gabriel asked quietly, with somewhat uncharacteristic concern.

 

“I don’t know. How’re you doing with your headaches and that visit to Madam Pomfrey’s which never happens?” Tanith challenged, looking up sharply. It was an obvious message: Don’t expect me to show my cards if you won’t show yours.

 

Gabriel sighed, rubbing his forehead. “I don’t want to go to Madam Pomfrey’s,” he said at length. “I don’t know what she’ll tell me.”

 

“It’s probably not serious, Doyle. And if it is, well, better to know now so you can nip it in the bud before it gets… well, bad.” Tanith chewed on her lower lip, looking at him with undisguised concern. “I don’t mean to nag. I just… worry. You’ve been a bit out of it lately.”

 

“And you’ve been acting like you’ve been gagged and bound, around Tobias at least. There’s been no sniping. No snide commentary. No territorial hissing at MacKenzie. Just… slinking off and avoiding the situation.” Gabriel tilted his head, watching her curiously. “What’s going on?”

 

“Uh-uh. You first. Your problem’s been going on longer. I’ve been nagging you longer.” Tanith shook her head very firmly, very quickly.

 

Gabriel paused, leaning back in the chair. There was a long silence as his gaze drifted across the common room, searching for things to say, and the right way to say them. Tanith, to her credit, said nothing – just sat and waited patiently.

 

“It’s going to sound crazy,” he said at length.

 

“And I’ve been a paragon of bloody sanity,” she countered smoothly.

 

“This isn’t just acting a bit weird around people. This is full-on psychotic kind of crazy.” Gabriel scrubbed his face with his hands. “The sort of thing where they cart you off to the crazy ward at Saint Mungo’s.”

 

Tanith straightened up, her concerned frown deepening. “Gabe, what’s going on?”

 

Gabriel sighed, leaning forwards and clasping his hands together before looking her straight in the eye. If he could convince her of his sincerity, it would be a start. It might just demonstrate that he was sincerely crazy, however.

 

“I’ve been, um, seeing things,” he began hesitantly, and waited a few seconds for that one to sink in before he pushed any further. And there was the reaction he expected; the slight furrow of the brow, the straightening up, the almost visible emotional barriers falling down. This was Tanith Cole going full defensive.

 

“Seeing things,” she repeated emptily, obviously careful to not put any inflection on the words, obviously trying to avoid giving any clues to what she might be thinking.

 

He groaned. “There’s no easy way to explain this. I’ve been having headaches since about the beginning of term now. When I passed out in Defence class, I… had some really weird dreams. There were voices chanting, telling me things, but I… I can’t remember them.” That was neither a complete lie nor the complete truth, but he didn’t feel particularly inclined to get onto that subject right then.

 

“Weird dreams too?” Here, Tanith failed to keep any scepticism or worry out of her voice.

 

“Then a week or so later… odd things happened. Like when I came into contact with people, I would… see something.” Gabriel wrung his hands together, trying to keep his nervous tics to a minimum but needing to allow the tension to escape somehow. “When Wilson grabbed me, I had a flash of something. When Urquhart clapped me on the back, I had a flash of something. Then… something in the corridor when I got bumped into. And it’s happened a few times since then, completely at random when coming into physical contact with people. Just that day – the Tuesday after the Hogsmeade trip? – that was the most intense.”

 

Tanith seemed to be softening a little as he gave her more facts, and she leaned back in the chair, expression wary but obviously a little less guarded. “What are you seeing?” she asked quietly.

 

“I’m not sure,” he confessed. “I just get these scenes in my head. They’re kind of blurry, and I can’t make out details. It’s like… sort of like a dream where you don’t identify things by what they look like, you just inherently know what things are. Or who they are. Sometimes.” Gabriel sighed, brushing some hair out of his eyes. “Like when I touched Wilson I had this vision of… of a funeral. It was in a graveyard, it was cold but the sun was shining, and a coffin was being lowered into a grave.”

 

She frowned, tilting forwards, and he could see he’d sparked up that flare of curiosity within her he knew would hold her in good stead as an Auror. “You saw Wilson’s funeral?”

 

Gabriel shook his head. “I don’t think it was his. I think I was seeing things through his eyes. There were people around, as well – he was holding a crying woman, and there was a crowd, and some man hanging back he didn’t like being there. But it was all indistinctive. More like… like feelings about a person, or the impression of a person, rather than a face or identity.”

 

Tanith played with the quill in her hands thoughtfully, her mind clearly ticking over these facts. “What about the others? Like Jack’s?”

 

“That one was a bit less confusing. I – he – was on a broom, above the Quidditch pitch, having an argument with a girl. I don’t know who. She seemed kind of familiar, but again… it was all just an impression. He was saying something about not wanting to help people who hated him, and she was telling him that it was the right thing to do, and it was rather weird.” Gabriel shrugged.

 

She let out a deep breath, brow furrowed. “Do you think you’re seeing the future?”

 

“Or the past. Maybe. Or I’m completely crazy.” He looked over at her, feeling his nerves settle a little as Tanith seemed to be taking this on board, albeit as a curious mystery, rather than treating him like a lunatic. “I don’t know, I’ve never met an actual seer. Just that fake Trelawney and Firenze, and centaurs seem to work a bit differently to human seers.”

 

“Well, seers do exist,” Tanith conceded, seeming to be mulling this over.

 

“It would also match Pomfrey’s diagnosis,” Gabriel said quickly, reaching for any evidence which would disprove his potential insanity. “That I had too much magic going through me, which was why I passed out? One of the theories of how divination works is that the future leaves traces in the ambient magic of an area, and a seer is just someone whose mind is open to those traces of temporal arcane energies. If I’ve been soaking those up, then that could explain these side-effects.”

 

“You’ve also looked a lot better since the Hogsmeade trip. Or since these visions began manifesting.”

 

“I’ve felt better,” he agreed. “Just… if these are visions of the future… there’s one bad thing.” Gabriel paused, scratching the back of his head, wondering how to broach this subject. “That same day, when we finished lunch and went into the corridor, remember how I flipped at Cal when he grabbed on to me?”

 

Tanith hesitated, frowning. “I think so. I wasn’t really paying attention to you.” What she had been paying attention to at the time didn’t need to be voiced.

 

“I had a vision then. Of lying in a bust-up house, with someone standing over me with a wand. And then, uh… casting the Killing Curse. Right at me.” Gabriel looked away, scowling out of the enchanted window, which right then gave him a wonderful view of a scene from the grounds of Hogwarts that had no actual connection to what lay beyond the walls of the common room.

 

A pointed silence met his words, eventually followed by Tanith drawing a deep breath. “You saw Cal’s death?”

 

“I don’t know. I know he grabbed me when I had a headache. I don’t know if that was before I had the vision, or after. And it was crowded, there were lots of people passing by. It could have been one of them.” Gabriel shrugged, not making eye contact. Not wanting to look her in the eye and say he could predict death. “We also don’t know if any of this is mutable… if it’s even the future… none of these things have come to pass…”

 

“Jack might have had a storming row with a woman, we wouldn’t really know.” In what had to be an impulse move, Tanith got up from her chair and went to sit down next to him. Her posture was stiff, and she made no move to reach out for him or make any offer of physical comfort, but it still warmed his heart that she was moving closer, rather than recoiling. “What about if you try it with me? See if that gives you anything?”

 

Gabriel looked over, making a face. “It doesn’t happen every time. Or I’d be passing out every time someone poked me. It just happens… sometimes.” He reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. “See?”

 

A clearing in woodland. Rain pouring down. A bitter chill. Someone screaming in his face.

 

“You don’t love, you can’t love. You’re too damn selfish, Tanith. I won’t be sucked into that!”

 

“Gabe?”

 

His head was resting against the coffee table, and as he slowly tried to sit up, his Herbology notes stuck to his temple, only coming away when he pulled them off with a dull moan. “Or not…”

 

“You just… keeled over for a second. It was weird.” Tanith looked honestly scared, reaching for the throw over the back of the sofa and pulling it over his shoulders in an uncharacteristically warm, even almost motherly fashion. “Are you alright?”

 

“I… yeah. Blinding pain, then these strange moments of clarity afterwards.” Gabriel pulled the blanket a little closer around himself, shivering. “It’s kind of like a migraine, sped-up. Though I haven’t been keeling over before. That one… that one kind of had…”

 

His voice trailed off as he looked at her and the images pieced themselves together a little more firmly in his mind. That one had an emotional gut-punch the others didn’t.

 

Tanith tilted her head a little, expression still one of concern. “What did you see?”

 

He opened his mouth to give her the full explanation, then the words wouldn’t come. He sagged lamely. “I… don’t think I should tell you,” Gabriel said at last.

 

“Why not? You told me about the ones for Wilson and Urquhart. This one affects me,” Tanith said pointedly, with small hints of desperation and, indeed, fear in her voice.

 

“It wasn’t your death, or anything. I just think it’s so vague it wouldn’t do you any good.” Gabriel rubbed his temples. “I don’t know if these things can be avoided or changed. I don’t know if they should be.” He sighed, closing his eyes to block out the spots dancing in front of his vision. “If this girl Jack was arguing with means, or will mean anything to him… I think what I’m seeing is a big emotional turn in someone’s life. A funeral. An argument. Your own death would be pretty big, too.”

 

“That makes me feel so reassured.” Tanith drew back a little, drawing her legs up underneath her on the sofa.

 

He glanced sideways, expression sceptical. “Oh, come on. So all you know is that something big and emotional is going to happen to you, at some point in the future. And I have absolutely no idea when.” He rubbed his forehead again. “We also have absolutely no confirmation that I’m not just crazy.” This prospect was starting to sound a little bit more pleasant than he’d initially thought – to be mad, rather than be able to foresee death.

 

“I suppose not,” Tanith said, slowly sagging. “Um. Are you alright?”

 

“I’ve had worse. I’ll be fine.” Gabriel shrugged off the blanket, shaking his head a little and looking back over towards the Herbology notes strewn over the table. “Are we going to get this homework done, or what?”

 

It was with some hesitation that Tanith returned to her previous seat, and it took several tries at reading and discussion before they could resume their flow of academic study. Yet ironically, despite Tanith’s obvious discomfort, it was Gabriel who finally submitted to the small, nagging voice at the back of his head and looked up, expression curious.

 

“We didn’t get around to my question.”

 

Tanith looked up, blinking. “What?”

 

“I told you my secret. What about yours?” He tilted his head, smirking impishly.

 

“There’s no secret,” Tanith said firmly. “I don’t have any… secrets. What had you been asking about again, anyway?” It didn’t sound entirely like a misdirection or denial.

 

Gabriel chuckled softly. “I was asking why you were acting like you’d been muzzled around Tobias. And especially around Tobias and MacKenzie. This isn’t the Tanith I know, snapping at the heels of anyone who sniffs around Tobias’ ankles, perpetually territorial.”

 

Tanith sagged a little, looking mildly distressed. “Have I been that bad before?”

 

“Not really,” he conceded, “but then, there hasn’t been much cause apart from Annie. And to be quite frank, I share your worries about her dumping Tobias the moment her friends begin to disapprove again of her going out with a Slytherin, or some equivalent drama. I think it’d really mess him up if she did that to him again. So with that in mind,” he set his quill down, steepling his fingers and looking her in the eye, “why has the watchdog act stopped?”

 

“You keep making it sound like I was all but peeing on him,” Tanith grumbled. “I wasn’t that bad. I was just… trying to stop him from doing anything particularly stupid.”

 

“Alright.” Gabriel didn’t believe it all, but he had successfully manoeuvred her where he wanted her. “Then how come, with Tobias making what’s probably a big mistake in going out with MacKenzie again, you’re suddenly gone mute?”

 

There was a silence as Tanith dropped her gaze, again scribbling something pointless on the Herbology notes as a poor escape route which floundered in seconds. She brushed a lock of hair behind an ear, not making eye contact. “I just… didn’t fancy it.”

 

“She could really hurt him.” Gabriel tapped his chin, aware he was turning the thumbscrews far more than she had to him, but objecting to her reticence after he had so willingly volunteered information which was probably a good deal more… dangerous.

 

“Like Tobias listens to anyone else when he’s after something he… wants.” Tanith scowled. “Like he listened to me last time when I predicted this. Like he listened to any of us.”

 

“I didn’t get involved,” Gabriel admitted. “But even so… you went from wanting to declare open war on MacKenzie, to running and hiding under the table. In just one conversation with her, your attitude turned completely upside-down.”

 

“I…” Tanith’s voice trailed off, and she chewed on her lower lip, once again looking rather lost and a little scared. Then she took a deep, shaking breath and met his gaze. “I need you to be absolutely honest with me for a bit. Because I know before today you’ve just… skirted around what you think.”

 

“Okay.” He nodded.

 

“MacKenzie said some things which I thought were kind of crazy.” Tanith played with the quill, looking back down again and staring at it as if it held all the answers she needed. “But I can’t get them out of my head. Stuff like…” There was a long pause as she lowered her head, running her fingers through her hair. “Like how I only want Tobias when I can’t have him. Like how I’m not playing watchdog for his own good, but because I’m… jealous.”

 

The words hung in the air between them for a long moment as Gabriel turned them over in his mind. Then he just nodded again. “Okay,” he repeated.

 

“Okay? Okay?” Tanith sat bolt upright, glaring at him. “I asked you for honesty.”

 

“And you didn’t ask anything, you just told me,” Gabriel pointed out.

 

“Well? Is this what everyone else has been thinking? Has this been obvious to absolutely everybody?” The unspoken words dangled pointedly: Except me.

 

Gabriel made a face. “You asked for honesty.” She nodded, and he sighed. “I can’t speak for everyone. But, yeah. That is what I’ve seen. That you’ve got a… thing for Tobias, and you don’t know how to cope with it, and that’s fine and dandy except for when he’s with someone else. And then you go mad.”

 

There was yet another pause as Tanith rubbed her temples. “I really wish someone had told me this.”

 

“I thought you knew,” he admitted. “Your feelings for Tobias have been, I hate to say it, the worst kept secret in Slytherin. Maybe all of our year. I thought you knew.”

 

“The worst kept secret?” She stared at him in horror. “Does he know?”

 

“Tobias? Tobias doesn’t know anything about anything.” Gabriel waved a hand dismissively. “Or he’s shoved his head in the sand like you did. The guy might be oblivious, but he’s not an ass, and I think he’d have done something if he knew. Instead of, you know, expecting us to all be happy and shiny around the two of them. That would just be a prickish sort of thing to do, expect you to be okay when he’s shoving the relationship in your face if he knew you had a… thing.” He paused, tilting his head at her. “Is ‘thing’ the right word? Am I doing this girly chat thing properly?” He softened the joke with a gentle smile.

 

“I don’t know what it is. Pesky feelings. Annoying emotions.” Tanith rubbed her eyes and sighed. “Wow,” she said. “I’m an enormous bitch.”

 

Gabriel blinked. “Come again?”

 

“I reject him at the Yule Ball, then I run around like a crazy jealous harpy when he gets with someone else. Then when they break up I do absolutely zilch about it, and throw a massive strop when they get back together. I’m a crazy bitch,” she explained, expression rather dour.

 

“I’d agree with the crazy part,” he said delicately. “But them I’m the guy seeing the future; what do I know?”

 

She groaned, looking over at him. “What am I going to do?”

 

“Well, first things first. Just because it looks like a thing to me and looks like a thing to MacKenzie, that doesn’t mean it’s a thing. We could know absolutely jack shit. So.” Gabriel leaned forwards so it would be harder for her to look away. “How do you feel about Tobias Grey?”

 

Tanith flinched. “I…”

 

“How do you feel when he walks into a room? How do you feel when he smiles? Laughs at your jokes? Does something… I don’t know, endearing?” Gabriel smirked, then tapped the side of his nose. “See? Those girly magazines you read for occasional distraction have finally come in handy. Sheer exposure to them means I am, in fact, more useful here than either Melanie or Ariane would be.”

 

“A plank would be more use than either of them, Doyle, but your assistance is welcome,” Tanith said dryly, before she finally allowed the questions to dance around in her head and she slumped dejectedly. “I… I don’t know.”

 

He made a small, slightly impatient noise. “Yes, you do. Pretend I’m not here, and talk.”

 

“Fine.” Tanith sighed, and closed her eyes. There was a long pause, and Gabriel could almost see the thoughts begin to tiptoe to the forefront, creeping into reality along with the faintest hint of a wistful smile on her lips.

 

“I can be having the crappiest time, and just passing him by in the corridor, or talking to him in class for a few seconds, can make the whole day seem brighter. If I make him smile, I want to do whatever I did over and over again so he smiles more. But it’s not when he laughs, it’s… the little things. The way he nudges his glasses up his nose. The way he gets enthusiastic about things, and rambles about them. The look on his face when he’s thinking about something, like there’s a storm of brilliance going on under the surface, and I could see it if I just reached out…”

 

Her voice trailed off, but the words had come tumbling in a deluge, as if they had been released from a small, suppressed box for the first time ever, and as she fell silent, Tanith Cole looked deeply ashamed. “I’m screwed, aren’t I.”

 

“Well.” Gabriel paused, not having anticipated a reaction of such intensity. “I’m no expert, but in my official capacity as an honorary girl… yeah. I’d call that a ‘thing’.”

 

“The question is,” Tanith said, looking like she wanted to move on from her honest outburst rather quickly, “what do I do from here?”

 

Gabriel sighed, mulling this over. “Three options, really. The first is to carry on like you’ve been doing.”

 

Tanith made a face. “I’d rather not go barking mad, if it’s all the same to you.”

 

“Reasonable.” He nodded. “The second is to, well, pony up and get over him.”

 

Another scowl. “And the third?”

 

He leaned back in the chair, falling silent for a few moments as he watched her. His mind felt like it was clogged up from the previous conversation, and there was still a distant thump in his temples. He wasn’t sure if it was just leftovers from that or something else entirely which made the final choice twist in his stomach a little.

 

“It’s not like he’s married to MacKenzie,” Gabriel said quietly. “And as he doesn’t know how you feel.. it’s not like he’s necessarily making an informed choice.”

 

Tanith considered this for a moment, rubbing her hands together and now looking rather drawn. “Fight for him?”

 

“If you want him,” Gabriel said with a small nod. “Then, yes. Fight.”

Chapter 19: The Day Is Gone
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Chapter 18: The Day is Gone




 

“Let’s take a break,” Ritter said at last, and with relief, gasping for breath, Tanith collapsed onto the stool in the corner.

 

Although it couldn’t have been going on for very long now, she’d already lost track of how many weeks it had been since the Hogsmeade trip, and how many weeks it had been since her father had sent the man who’d taught her the alphabet up to instruct her in the art of self-defence. And navigation. And psychology. And anything that seemed to occur to Altair Ritter as useful.

 

So far, he’d shown her the ins and outs of moving about Hogwarts and Hogsmeade speedily and without using any of the most common routes. If she wanted to, Tanith knew exactly how she could make it from the Slytherin common room to the Great Hall and probably not run into anyone in between, even at mealtimes or in between classes. The school was a veritable warren of corridors, staircases, and little, discreet passageways, to the extent where she dimly wondered if the Founders had been fond of mazes, or perhaps intoxicated when drawing up the plans for the castle.

 

Then they’d moved on to slightly more practical matters, such as how to read body language. The idea behind this, Ritter had said, was that it would allow her to see the truth behind words, and evaluate whether someone in front of her was an actual threat.

 

“Wizards,” he’d said, with that small note of superiority in his voice which crept up whenever he would address the limitations of magical folk, “tend to accept whatever is in front of them as the absolute truth. And they never know anything about people. A wizard will tell you lies with his words, but he won’t have the faintest clue how to lie to you with his eyes, with his face, with how he stands. And most wizards won’t have any idea how to identify those lies. You’ll be different, when we’re done.”

 

And already she could see the difference. Already she was beginning to note greater subtleties in the behaviour of her fellow students, with rather enlightening conclusions. How Tobias not making perfect eye contact when he said he’d come in from going to the library meant he had, instead, been out to see MacKenzie. How Gabriel hunching up slightly when he told Cal he’d gone to Madam Pomfrey meant that he blatantly hadn’t. How Ariane tilting her head in a certain way and her voice taking on a certain lilt meant that she hadn’t had half as much luck with Theron Howlett behind the Quidditch changing rooms as she’d like them all to think.

 

Simple ideas. Obvious gestures. And yet so few people thought to look for them – so even fewer thought to try and hide them.

 

The instruction became more physical from there, and it was that which had Tanith now out of breath and staggering away from the centre of this room in the Hog’s Head which had been repeatedly hired for these training sessions.

 

How to win a wand without a fight was not something Tanith had ever given very much thought. If there was no violence occurring, her wits and her tongue were both sharp enough for her to usually emerge victorious, or to sidestep hostilities. If a fight did break out, her wand was quicker than most.

 

But Ritter had demonstrated how over-confidence could be a killer in their first training session, where he’d demanded she try to Stun him. She’d rolled her eyes, lifted her wand, and then found he’d closed the distance between her before she could blink and twisted her wrist until instinct had seen her releasing her grip. It was, he had pointed out, that easy to take on even the most experienced duellist. Because no wizard expected a physical fight.

 

He’d taught her those tricks to begin with – getting rid of an opponent’s wand. The various places to apply pressure on the arm, the various grips and twists and chops. Even, sometimes, brute force. And then he’d begun to show her how to survive a fight once both contenders were unarmed.

 

Victory, Ritter had impressed upon her, was not the intention. He was not showing her how to beat opponents, how to win fights. The training was geared towards allowing her to hold her own in combat long enough for either backup to arrive, or for her to get the chance to run.

 

This would also be the part of the training which would take longest. Everything else was intellectual, and could come through her own practice outside of their sessions. These aspects of physical self-defence, he explained, could take years to perfect, and he himself continued to study the arts in-depth. Muggles had apparently established literally hundreds of forms of physical combat, all with their various strengths and focuses, and the idea of perfecting them all was almost the same as the concept of perfecting all forms of magic: a life’s work for a genius.

 

Tanith was just glad she’d been continuing with the physical fitness training for the Auror candidacy, which meant she could practice knocking Ritter to the ground for quite a while before needing to stop for a breather. Like now.

 

“A break? We’ve been at this most of the afternoon,” Tanith murmured resentfully, rubbing a bashed elbow.

 

“And training will continue to focus more and more on this as the weeks continue,” Ritter said, ambling over to the table and taking a swig from the bottle of water there. “You know most of Hogwarts inside and out, and you have enough maps to figure things out for yourself now that you know the basic principles. Your people-watching skills will improve with time and, of course, your own practice. But for this… for this, you need an instructor. And as our time together is so limited, I have to make it count.”

 

Tanith looked up at him, raising an eyebrow. “What about the toys?”

 

She suppressed a grin as a slightly pained expression crossed her tutor’s face. “They’re not toys.”

 

“You get them from Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes. They’re prankster’s toys. Your trunk looks like that of a travelling Zonko’s salesman.” She did smirk impishly at this, distinctly enjoying the discomfort that her words extracted in retaliation for her bruises.

 

“And they’ve saved my life many times.” Ritter sighed, looking over at her with a fond smile. “Fine. We’ll go over more equipment issues. But it’s a bit superfluous. I use these when I know I’m going out into the field and need to be ready. I very rarely carry much with me on an everyday basis. I’m not preparing you to go looking for trouble, I’m preparing you for when it goes looking for you.”

 

“It’s still more fun than being thrown around like a rag doll,” Tanith pointed out ruefully. “And I could begin to keep a few on me.”

 

He tilted his head at her, then reached down beneath the table and lifted the aforementioned trunk up. It was a large, worn and battered affair, having obviously seen many years of hard use, leather-bound and as well-loved as luggage could be.

 

She took discreet note of which pocket he pulled the small key which opened the lock from, just for practice, and observed keenly as he returned it to the same safe haven before lifting the lid.

 

Inside did, indeed, look like a small warehouse of Weasley products – and it was definitely enchanted to be larger within than without. There were several shelves for easy access to the variety of gear inside, all meticulously arranged and laid out.

 

At the top were the small black orbs which Tanith knew contained the Peruvian Darkness Powder she had seen her tutor make use of in Derbyshire. Below it was a rack of trick wands, most of which simply did nothing but a few were the more standard transforming joke objects. Further down were more trinkets and toys, some of which she recognised from a hard previous year as a prefect while the Weasley twins had peddled their wares around school, some of which were more obscure.

 

She peered at the wands this time, the items she’d usually overlooked. “Why do you have these?”

 

Ritter pulled one out and gave it a short wave, whereupon it promptly did nothing. “Usually just for show. I don’t want to carry a real wand on me, they can occasionally act oddly around Squibs. Strange sparks, bizarre magics. Nothing useful or controllable, and so entirely counter-productive to my needs.” He handed the fake wand over to her. “But it looks exactly like the real thing. And not everyone knows of my little magical problem. Again, wizards trust what they see. They see a man with a wand, they assume I’m a wizard. I know I don’t need to explain to you the importance of bluffing.”

 

She turned the wand over, and indeed, even on close inspection she couldn’t tell the difference between this cheap toy and one of Ollivander’s finest. “Then why the rubber chicken ones?”

 

Her tutor actually looked a little bashful at this, taking the wand back and putting it away briskly, clearing his throat. “Ah… they have little to no actual use, except for occasionally as a distraction – and, to be honest, I have better tools for purposes of distraction. But sometimes a little humiliation of one’s opponents can be useful.” His fingers lingered over the rack before he picked up one at the end which looked as unimportant as all of the others.

 

“This one is excellent if I get the chance to swap a wizard’s wand. When waved, a large mallet emerges from the top and beats the user about the head. Not particularly painful, but deeply confusing and enough to stun someone for a few seconds as their own wand attacks them.” Ritter gave a small, brisk chuckle, and his eyes went distant for a moment as he drifted off into what looked like fond recollections.

 

“I thought none of this was supposed to be fun?” Tanith asked wryly, watching his expression.

 

“It’s not. War isn’t. So we have to gather up whatever enjoyment we can from the affair, and make the most of it.” He looked up quickly, dark eyes suddenly going quite serious. “Remember that, Tanith. I know I’m showing you how to fight and how to stay safe, but there are more important things than… surviving. You have to be alive, too.”

 

Tanith blinked at this sudden change of pace. It wasn’t that she wasn’t accustomed to her tutor giving such emotional advice; he had often counselled her through problems when she’d been younger. But for the past few months he had been so stern, so business-like, that this sudden shift back to being as she remembered him from when she was all of four years old took her aback briefly.

 

“I’m okay. You don’t need to worry about that,” she said, and she kept eye contact, made her stance remain just as relaxed as it had been seconds earlier, and kept her voice exactly as casual as it needed to be.

 

Ritter snorted, and the glint in his eye showed he wasn’t fooled by her well-taught efforts in covering up deception, but he let the matter slide.

 

“Then I’ll worry about your survival,” he said. “And having mentioned distractions, perhaps we should take a look at another one of my favourites, the Decoy Detonators…”

 

The rest of the session passed with relative ease and no more bruises, a simple discussion on the various uses of Ritter’s various gadgets in self-defence. They had enough time to touch briefly on the concept of making use of one’s environment to achieve similar aims before he deemed their time was up, and then set her the personal challenge of making it back up to Hogwarts ten minutes under the expected travel time by using a different route.

 

She would have refused to ‘cheat’ by running, but fate had a slightly different idea in mind when, not two minutes out the door, the rain began. It was only light, but standing in light rain for long enough will still drench you, and so it was in low spirits that Tanith squelched through one of the side entrances to the castle, a little-used door that nobody would notice her slipping in through. Especially as it was a late Sunday afternoon, and especially as this entrance connected to a corridor which only led to one other place of note: the library.

 

Fate clearly decided to give her a firm kicking again as, when she shook rain drops from her hair and began to wring out a slightly damp robe, the lanky shape of Tobias Grey trotted down the staircase next to her, cheerfully brandishing a small pile of Arithmancy books.

 

She scowled at him. “What are you doing here?”

 

Tobias blinked at her, seeming stunned by her presence, before he looked down at the books and back up again. “Um. Library?”

 

Of course you’d be using the library at this time when no other bugger in the school would…

 

“What are you doing here? You’re soaking!” It took a second for Tobias to take in her appearance, but he promptly reached for his bag to put the books away and stepped forwards, starting to shrug off his coat.

 

“No, no. I’m fine.” She backed away, hands up to ward him off. The last thing she needed was for him to be close, and the second-to-last thing she needed was something warm that smelled of him around her shoulders.

 

“Okay…” He peered at her curiously. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I went for a jog. It wasn’t raining when I left.” The lie came easily. Tobias hadn’t been engaged enough with her and her life for so long that she didn’t expect him to even look for deception.

 

“I see.” He glanced out the window. “Heading back to the common room?” Tobias gestured down the corridor, the invitation of company obvious.

 

Tanith hesitated. On the one hand, she’d been trying to keep away from him while she figured out what she was going to do with herself and these pesky feelings. On the other, she was having a distinctly hard time summoning the word ‘no’ in the face of that slightly hesitant, but nevertheless genuine smile hovering around his lips.

 

Then something clicked in her head, and a split-second later something twisted in her stomach, and it was with a sinking heart that she looked him in the eye. “Actually… I fancy a walk. Coming?” She forced a levity into her voice that she didn’t feel as this sudden determination continued to creep over her, and she knew what she needed to do.

 

Tobias looked back out the window dubiously. “In the rain?”

 

“It’s not that bad. It’s actually quite refreshing,” Tanith lied. But the last thing she wanted was an interruption, and right then she didn’t trust the castle to not begin to sprout students from every corridor if she tried to hold this conversation indoors. At least nobody would be stupid enough to run around in the rain.

 

Except her, and as her brain raced through the discussion ahead, she confirmed to herself that running around in the rain would be the least of her matching criteria for stupidity.

 

Tobias took a deep, hesitant breath, then looked over at her, and seemed to recognise that this wasn’t just a little meander in the fresh air in the name of one’s health. “Alright, then.”

 

The rain was slightly more than the drizzle she’d anticipated once they stepped back out into the grounds, but having set her course, Tanith didn’t dare try to change whatever vague plans she had in case the screaming coward – or survival instinct – in her mind tried to take the entire thing off the rails.

 

“So what’s up?” Tobias asked at last as they wandered soggily by the lake, having walked in silence for several minutes while Tanith chewed agitatedly on her lip in contemplation. There was no room in Tobias’ voice for the idea that something might not be amiss.

 

“Erm…” Tanith glanced around wildly, anticipating interruptions leaping from around every corner, like some deranged Quidditch players not put off by bad weather. Her eyes landed on the woodland towards the groundskeeper’s hut. Trees. Nobody will be out in the woodland.

 

She didn’t look at him as she began to steer them in that direction, but within a couple of seconds realised he was going to need some sort of response. “I was just thinking that we haven’t caught up recently. Or talked much at all recently.”

 

“Well, no, I suppose not. But you’ve seemed rather busy.” Tobias didn’t look convinced, but seemed to be playing along for now. “All of this Auror training and NEWT studying and what have you. Every time I’ve seen you, you’ve been dashing off to do something seemingly important.” A small smile tugged at his lips. “You’re going to ace the Auror interviews with all the work you’re putting in.”

 

That would be true, if I were actually going off to study as often as he thought, instead of making excuses to get away. Tanith shrugged neutrally. “I guess. We’ll have to wait and see. At least it’s not a competition, at least it’s not about a set number of spaces. Just about who’s good enough.” She managed to look at him out of the corner of her eye. “So what’s been up with you?”

 

“Not much.” Tobias sighed. “Most of the NEWT courses seem to be moving into the independent study area. Which I enjoy, but I kind of wish we could cut back on lesson time so we could actually do all of this coursework. I kind of feel like the classes are becoming a bit obligatory, you know?” He shook his head, droplets of water flying off and being replaced by the rain just as quickly. “And, well, you know how the Head Boy stuff is going.”

 

“Three prefects replaced. Your discipline has been noted. Everyone’s running scared.” Tanith smiled tightly, a small bubble of pride rising within her at how her friend had stuck to his guns with his beliefs on this matter. No prefect dared give off the impression they were dead weight if they didn’t want to lose their badge with Tobias as Head Boy.

 

She took a deep, slightly shaky breath. “And, um, Annie? Things are good there?”

 

Tobias looked a little suspicious, but shrugged. “Yeah. Things are… fine. We have fun. It’s not going to go wrong like last time. It’s good.” He nodded firmly.

 

“How do you know?” Tanith asked suddenly, and just as quickly cursed herself internally as the words – words that had been bottled up for so long inside – burst out.

 

“What?” Tobias came to a halt, turning to face her. They had just reached the path into the trees by now, and the leaves above them staved off the worst of the rain.

 

She was already soaking, though, and so it didn’t matter – even if it did, she wouldn’t have been able to feel it as she repressed the urge to shake when she met his gaze. “How do you know it won’t end the same way it did last time? I don’t know, if you take another Gryffindor prefect’s badge and then you’re persona non grata again?”

 

“That’s not going to happen.” Tobias frowned slightly, though he did seem very slightly like he was trying to convince himself of this fact. “We’ve talked about it. I’m on much better terms with her friends. There’s no Inquisitorial Squad around the corner to set things off. It’s fine.”

 

“I’m sure we all thought it was going to be fine last time,” Tanith muttered, glancing away and sighing deeply. “You can be a right naïve idiot sometimes, Grey, you know that?”

 

He took his glasses off as the rain obscured his vision, and glared at her. “Did you just drag me out here so you could bitch at me about how you don’t approve of this relationship? As though you hadn’t already made your opinion perfectly clear?”

 

So he has actually paid my behaviour a degree of attention. But only barely, if he can’t see what everyone else seems to have figured out.

 

“Actually, no. I’ve been biting my tongue and keeping away from this situation, because I know it’ll piss me off to just watch you be stupid. Now I’m making my opinion perfectly clear.” Tanith folded her arms across her chest. Now she knew why she’d picked a fight so unnecessarily, why she’d antagonised him as an opening gambit. In a hesitant conversation she’d be more inclined to cut and run. But when the fighting started, there was no way she’d back down.

 

And if she didn’t do this now, then she knew she never would.

 

There are more important things than surviving. You have to be alive, too.

 

Tobias’ scowl deepened. “Fine. You’ve made your opinion clear. You think she’s bad news. Thank you. Can I go now?” He turned to leave.

 

She reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder firmly, and as he stopped the contact was like electricity at the tips of her fingers. “Why are you so intent on ignoring this? On sticking your head in the sand and pretending it’s all going to be okay, when you don’t know it will be?”

 

“It’s called taking a gamble, Tanith,” Tobias snapped. “I know you’re not familiar with the concept of moving away from safe ground, but sometimes, you have to take a chance.” She was too busy suppressing a wry snort to get a word in before he delivered his counter-attack. “Why are you so intent on seeing just the bad in this? Can’t you be happy for me, for once?”

 

“Happy as you throw your heart on the line for someone who’ll drop you once it gets convenient?” Tanith rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to see you get hurt. Neither do the others.” Though it wasn’t a lie, the last sentence felt bitter on her tongue, a diversion that wasn’t entirely fair.

 

“Oh, no. Don’t bring Cal and Gabe into this. If they have a problem, they can speak to me themselves about it.” Tobias waggled a finger. “If not, don’t designate yourself as spokesperson for what you think that they think, just to give your argument more credibility.” He threw his hands up into the air with frustration. “What is it? Can’t you cope with seeing someone else getting their act together, getting their life together, while you still play it safe?”

 

“If you think that I am playing it safe right now, Tobias, then you clearly don’t know me as well as you think you do,” Tanith said, and her voice was cold and level as something icy twisted within her.

 

Tobias did falter at this, narrowing his eyes. “What do you mean? What’s the matter with you?”

 

She looked at him for a long moment, drawing on every lesson Altair had taught her in search of some flicker, some clue – but all she could see was honest confusion. “You have no idea, do you. You’re so caught up in your own world these days that you can’t see what’s in front of your nose…” She couldn’t stop herself from sounding amazed as the true depths of Tobias’ recent self-absorption began to show themselves.

 

What’s in front of my nose?” Tobias folded his arms across his chest irritably.

 

“Me.” The word slipped out of Tanith’s mouth before she could stop it, before she could question it, and even as she flailed and panicked internally, whatever momentum she’d picked up from the argument kept her sailing on. “Why I’ve been acting like this, why I can’t stand MacKenzie, why I so desperately don’t want you to be hurt.”

 

There was a pause as she tried to gather herself and Tobias stared at her with a confused expression. Comprehension appeared to be dawning just around the edges, but before he could get a good grip on it, the same irritation as before resurfaced, born of frustration and confusion and all pointed at her.

 

“Are you going to speak plainly, or have you completely lost your mind?” he snapped. She could see the slight trace of fear within him that drove this anger onwards, and as it clouded his response, made him more volatile, she quietly and finally regretted starting this conversation with a fight. “Why are you acting like this, then?”

 

“Because I’m in love with you, and I shouldn’t be!”

 

In the months to come, Tanith would still look back on this moment with confusion. Since her conversation with Gabriel, although she’d had a better grasp of her feelings she’d still been unable to define them in-depth – and for once, it wasn’t through lack of trying. She’d considered her emotions from all angles, tried to contemplate exactly what it was driving her, and had failed to reach any conclusions.

 

But as the words tumbled out of her mouth, alongside the lurching horror within her at their implications was a strange internal calm. Because it was the truth, and because it explained so very much.

 

This didn’t stop her from taking a step back as Tobias stared, stunned, at her for a long moment, and she clasped a hand over her mouth. But even if she was trying to stem the flow of further words, it wasn’t as if there was anything she could say which could make it worse.

 

“You…” Tobias gaped at her, and in the silence that followed she was keenly aware of the cold seeping into her bones, and the rain bouncing off the leaves above them and trickling down the back of her neck, and the smell of the soaked woodlands around them, of pine and fallen leaves.

 

“No, you don’t,” he said at last.

 

She stared at him, frowning. Out of all the responses she’d anticipated, feared, hoped, this hadn’t even come up as an option.

 

“What?”

 

“You’ve just got some weird infatuation with me, like I had with you and got over. Only you’re trying to justify it and give it some bigger meaning, some bigger… weight.” Tobias waved his hands vaguely, his voice sounding a little distant, rather lost.

 

Tanith sagged, and wiped some water out of her eyes. “That would make it so much easier, wouldn’t it, Grey,” she murmured wryly, most of the fight gone out of her at this point. “But I’m afraid I’m not bullshitting you.” She met his gaze and felt her stomach lurch. “I love you.”

 

He visibly flinched and drew back. “Don’t say that,” he snapped, the fire sparking back up within him, and he began to pace in this small clearing, like he always did when tossing ideas about in his mind and trying to come to grips with them. “Did you just do this to mess with me? Shoot me down at the Yule Ball, then screw with me later?”

 

“The Yule Ball was two years ago, Grey. A lot’s happened since then,” she replied. Her voice was still level, that same calm remaining within her – but her placidity seemed to only incense him more.

 

“Yes! It has! And a lot’s going on now!” He stopped pacing, and turned to face her, colour rising to his cheeks. “I’ve got my NEWTs going on, and the Head Boy responsibilities, and I’m with Annie and I’m happy!” She wasn’t sure if the determination in that last note was to drive the point home for her… or for him.

 

“I can’t change the way I feel, Grey. I’ve been trying. Trust me, I’ve been trying.” She gave a small, bitter laugh.

 

“This isn’t about what you feel, or what you think you feel!” Tobias snapped, practically in her face by now. “This is about things not going your way, and you not being able to cope with that!”

 

Tanith paused, looking at him with a mixture of confusion and offence. “You think I’m doing all of this, putting myself through all of this, as some sort of juvenile hissyfit?”

 

“It fits your behaviour so bloody far!” Tobias shouted. “You can’t stand it when life doesn’t go as you want it to, so you act out, so you explode! You can’t stand me being with Annie, can’t stand how things are changing this year, so you try to derail everything!”

 

“Jesus, Grey, I’m sorry that my emotions are getting in the way of your perfect little bloody life,” Tanith said, both astounded and honestly insulted at this sudden lashing out. “I wasn’t expecting you to really do anything when I told you, but I needed to get this off my chest for my own peace of mind. Even if it ends in being shot down – which, well, is what’s happening.”

 

She found it rather disturbing how blasé she could force herself to be about getting her heart broken.

 

Tobias threw his hands up in the air again, his body language the same as it was if he was dealing with an unreasonable first year. “Yeah, it is. Because I’m not going to pander to your crazed coping mechanisms and indulge you just so you get your own way.” He glared at her, meeting her gaze levelly. She’d seen him lose his temper before, seen him honestly angry before, but it had never really been at her.

 

But from the look in his eyes, now she knew why even the most boisterous older students could quail in the face of his discipline.

 

“You say that you love me,” he continued, and spat the words out so harshly it felt he’d spat her heart out with them. “You don’t love, you can’t love. You’re too damn selfish, Tanith. I won’t be sucked into that!”

 

He stepped back as she stood there, just reeling from his words, and shook his head in a futile effort to dry himself. “So I’m going to go back to what I was doing. I’m going to go back to my studies, I’m going to go back to my work as Head Boy. I’m going to go back to Annie. And you’re just going to have to cope with it, and come and find me when you’re ready to live in the real world.” Then Tobias was gone, storming down the path the way he’d come.

 

She didn’t know how long she stood there as the rain worsened and the chill wormed its way deeper into her bones and her heart lay somewhere in the fallen leaves. She just listened to the raindrops bouncing off the leaves and landing on and around her; inhaled the smell of pine and the wet air; soaked in all of the glorious but fading colours of autumn; felt the echoes of the argument fade away into the growing mist and being eaten up by the trees.

 

And all in all, she marvelled at how, when her world had come crashing down around her ears, she felt more alive than she could ever remember feeling.

Chapter 20: The Life and Soul
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Chapter 19: The Life and Soul




 

“It’s a toff evening, is what it is.”

 

“It’s not a toff evening, Cal. It’s a perfectly good party.” Tobias rolled his eyes with exasperation as they made their way down the corridor, he dressed in his navy dress robes, Cal relaxed in jeans and a sweater.

 

“Am I invited?” Cal sniffed.

 

“Well, no…”

 

“Then how can it be any good a party without me?” The Welshman smiled a broad, slightly devilish smile. “A silly, selective evening with a bunch of Slughorn’s favourites. It’s elitism, that’s what.”

 

“Elitism?” Tobias raised an eyebrow at his friend incredulously. “You honestly care about that?”

 

“I do when it excludes me from a shindig.”

 

“A what?”

 

“You know. Shindig. Hoot-nanny. Ho-down. That sort of thing.” Cal shrugged to himself.

 

Tobias continued to stare at him. “You get weirder and weirder, you know that?”

 

“I do. I do.” Cal nodded sagely, smirking quietly as they turned the final corner to bring them to the corridor leading to the Gryffindor common room.

 

By the determinedly unattractive portrait that allowed Hogwarts’ bravest entrance to their private domain waited Annie, leaning against the wall with a rather casual air, and Tobias couldn’t stop the slightly silly smile which tugged at the corners of his lips as he saw her. She wore a dark green dress of a simple cut, but the colour brought out the shine of her eyes and hair, and for a few long seconds, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

 

She looked up, smiling her own unstoppable smile as she saw him – only hers didn’t look silly, at least not to him, but rather made his heart soar. She crossed the distance between them in quick, rather un-ladylike strides, and leaned in to give him a peck on the lips. His hands came to her waist as she stepped in, stopping her from escaping and lengthening the kiss beyond what was originally intended but was by no means unwelcome.

 

When she finally pulled back, her smile was even broader and there was a slight flush to her cheeks, and the two just stood grinning at each other for a moment until Cal gave a small harrumph of false irritation.

 

“You don’t greet me like that,” he muttered wryly, elbowing Tobias and fighting down his own smirk.

 

“It’s true, Cal, I have left you for a woman,” Tobias replied, turning his grin on his friend. “It’s the breasts, you see.”

 

Cal raised an eyebrow as Annie rolled her eyes. “Really? They’re that good? I must find this out for myself!” he declared, then turned his attention to her and reached out with grasping hands, which she slapped away as expected.

 

“I should let you, really,” Annie laughed. “You probably wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t stop you!”

 

“Sure I would!” Cal said defensively. “Get hexed in the face by Toby!” He grinned as they laughed, then clapped Tobias on the back. “I should get going. You kids have fun, you hear? And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do?”

 

“Oh, so we’re allowed to get drunk and dance on the table?” Annie said, with wide-eyed innocence.

 

“You can. In fact, I endorse that.”

 

Annie chuckled, leaning forward to kiss Cal on the cheek. “Good night, Cal.”

 

Although Cal had never been one to let his head be turned by just any woman, and reputably already had his Ravenclaw-coloured bit of skirt around school for his own distraction, there was a definite hint of colour that rose to Cal’s cheeks. “Good night, you two.” He slapped Tobias on the shoulder again, then carried on the way he’d been going down the corridor.

 

“I hope he’s got plans and you’re not abandoning him for the evening.” Annie nudged Tobias reproachfully, though she wore a soft smile.

 

“Oh, he’ll be fine. I think he’s saying goodbye to Lockett before the holidays.” Tobias grinned at her, then reached down to take her hand as they started off in the direction of Slughorn’s office.

 

“Are they a… thing?” Annie tilted her head curiously.

 

“I don’t know,” Tobias confessed. “They’re definitely friendly. Cal hasn’t said one way or another. But, then, I think he’s trying to dodge the gossip train.”

 

“Can’t blame him.” Annie nodded. “I mean, there’s been enough insanity floating around over the last few weeks just over who’s going with who to this party. If I have to hear one more wistful sigh about who might be taking Harry bloody Potter to this bloody party, I’m going to hex someone.”

 

“Oh, so this Potter fellow is popular, is he?” Tobias grinned. “Can’t say I’ve heard of him.”

 

She nudged him playfully. “Problem is, there aren’t actually that many Gryffindors invited. Maybe four or five of us. Cormac and Jennifer are the only seventh-years Slughorn’s paid attention to. So people have been latching on to anyone they can to get themselves an invite.”

 

“All the better for you that you’re going out with the highly-esteemed Head Boy, then.” Tobias gave a smirk of mock-pompousness, which was received with yet another elbow in the ribs.

 

“Well, Slytherins are fewer and further between. There’s only you and Zabini, isn’t there?” Annie said.

 

Tobias nodded, stepping forward slightly to open the door to a stairway for her, waving her in first. “Slughorn seems pretty leery about having anything to do with anyone associated with Death Eaters. Which eliminates about half of the older students. And most of us who don’t have Death Eater associations are smart and keep our heads down to avoid too much attention.” Tobias paused, stroking his chin in mock-consideration. “Or so they say. I never got the memo on that…”

 

“Still, it’s a surprisingly small number of Slytherins.”

 

“Well, Cal has Death Eater associations, as do Ariane and Montague. Pucey’s an idiot, Bletchley’s screwed up a few too many times, and Gabriel and Melanie make a point of keeping their heads down.” Tobias shrugged. “Our year’s pretty remarkable in how, well unremarkable it is.”

 

Annie hummed, nodding. Then, “What about Tanith?”

 

Tobias stumbled on a step, then swore and righted himself. “What about Tanith?” he asked, forcing himself to keep his voice even and internally cursing his lack of subtlety, not to mention balance.

 

He could feel Annie’s eyes on him as they ascended the stairway, though he was focusing more on not falling flat on his face again. “I mean, why don’t you think she’s in the Slug Club?” Her voice was light, and calm, but there was a definite undertone of tension in there he could just about hear.

 

He forced himself to shrug. “I don’t know. You’d have to ask old Sluggy.”

 

“Old Sluggy.” Annie made a face, then snorted, and the tension dissipated almost as quickly as it had settled upon them. “You sound like Cormac.”

 

Tobias looked at her in horror as they rounded the next corner, the door to Slughorn’s office now in sight at the far end and the sound of revelry just about reaching their ears. “You take that back.”

 

“Touched a nerve?” Annie chuckled.

 

“Seriously. Either never say that again or kill me now.” Tobias stared at her, eyes wide.

 

“Oh. Really?” Annie tilted her head at him, then sighed and waved a finger in his direction. “If you say so. Avada Kedavra.”

 

“It’d be better than being like McLaggen.” Tobias repressed a shudder as they reached the door, then he leaned forwards and opened it, again gesturing for her to go first. “After you.”

 

She grinned at his chivalry, then stepped inside. As he followed her in, he was immediately hit with the wave of colours of the decorations for this Christmas party. Slughorn had to have magically enlarged his office, or perhaps wrangled something of unusual size, for they had come expecting some sort of cosy gathering and were instead accosted with a large tree, many drapes in emerald and crimson, a crowd larger than anticipated and including various adults who were definitely not students.

 

“Huh. I thought this was a Christmas party, not the shoulder-rubbing event of the year.” Tobias gaped at the assembled, noticing a few people he recognised, such as a vaunted columnist from the Daily Prophet and even a couple of members of the Weird Sisters.

 

Annie glanced down at the house elves bearing over-burdened trays of vol-au-vents and other snacks, so weighed down that they almost seemed more like mobile food dispensers than actual creatures. “I feel like we should be surrounded by midgets carrying trays of crack, like at those Queen parties…”

 

Tobias faltered, staring at her. “The queen’s parties with crack and midgets? What?”

 

She looked at him curiously for a moment. “Not the queen. Queen. The band. You know. Freddie Mercury?” Annie sighed as Tobias continued to look at her with deep confusion. “For someone who went to a normal primary school, your concept of Muggle culture is surprisingly narrow.”

 

“I stopped being involved when I was eleven. My knowledge extends as far as great literature, and Transformers.” Tobias blinked at the house elves, now seeing them in a whole new light, and not entirely sure he actually wanted the finger food they presented to him.

 

“Tobias!” A meaty hand landed on his shoulder, almost making him choke on the breadstick he was trying to chow down, and the corpulent form of Professor Slughorn ambled into his vision. “Glad you could make it, my boy, very glad indeed.” Somewhere to the side, Annie seemed to take one look at the situation before bolting, heading in the direction of Jennifer Riley and Nick Wilson, over in a corner.

 

“Professor. Excellent, um, shindig.” Tobias coughed on the food, clearing the airways, and silently cursed Cal for putting that ridiculous word in his head, where it appeared to have taken root.

 

“Shindig. Ever the wordsmith.” Slughorn chuckled, his entire belly wobbling with the motion. “How have the applications to the Ministry been going? Any word yet from any of them?”

 

“They’re off, Professor. All I can do now is wait, and a response isn’t likely until after Christmas.” Tobias straightened up to look levelly at the Professor, smiling honestly. “There’s only really one I’m that interested in, though, truth be told.”

 

“Department of International Magical Cooperation?” Slughorn asked, though there was a twinkle in his eye and it was quite clear he knew this for certain already. “Oh, of course. Well, like I said to you a few months back, I have a few friends who’ve gone on to work for the department who could give you a few pointers… in fact…” He turned, waving a hand and seeming to summon a woman from the crowd – or, perhaps, Tobias just hadn’t been paying much attention to who was orbiting Slughorn at this point.

 

“My boy, this is Aurora Marlowe, Counsellor to the Ministry of Magic’s Ambassador to Russia’s Federation of Wizardry.” Slughorn smiled genially, as if having such a person to hand was a mere coincidence, rather than his intention all along – though Tobias was loath to hold this against him as he saw the opportunities spilling out before his eyes. “Aurora, this is Tobias Grey, Head Boy and a lad who will probably be your boss some day.”

 

Aurora Marlowe was a tall, aristocratic woman about the same age as Tobias’ mother, with fiercely pinned up chestnut hair that she didn’t seem to have seen fit to let down even for a relaxed party such as this. But her sculptured features showed no hint of arrogance or reserve; indeed, dark eyes were locked on him with a curious, appraising air.

 

Tobias stepped forward, extending a hand politely. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

 

“‘Ma’am’. I’m old enough for a ‘ma’am’. Kill me, Sluggy.” Marlowe glanced sideways, the hint of a smile tugging at her lips before she returned her attention to Tobias. “And Grey, you say. You wouldn’t be Bobby Grey’s son, would you?”

 

“Bobby…” Tobias blinked, having never heard his father referred to by such a nickname before. “If you mean Robert Grey, married Melissa Hart, then, um, yes. I am.”

 

The smile that hung around Marlowe’s lips remained, though the glint in her eyes was difficult to read. “Isn’t that something. I was a great friend of your father’s at school. His death was such a tragedy; the loss of such a brilliant mind… and a good man. Though I suppose you never met him.” Her expression held the usual hint of sympathy, but it was that of a reserved and shared pain. He could detect no trace of the pity that tended to accompany it.

 

“Unfortunately not.” It was always in Tobias’ habit to be rather formal around those he didn’t know particularly well when talking of his father; there was always something rather uncomfortable about the fact that he often discussed Robert Grey with people who knew him better than he ever had, when his claim to loss was all the greater.

 

“Such a tragedy. You do look rather like him.” Then Marlowe blinked, and that glint in her eye disappeared, and her expression became brusque, businesslike. “So Sluggy says you’re applying for the DIMC?”

 

She pronounced it as a word that sounded more like ‘dimk’, and it took Tobias a brief stumble to interpret the acronym before he nodded quickly. “I’d like to get the opportunity to see the rest of the world. Though I’m aware that most of the first few years would be probably spent around the Ministry doing minor work with the envoys from abroad.”

 

“For most applicants, yes. Though some of us are always on the lookout for up-and-coming youngsters who we think will benefit from some hands-on experience out in the field, so to speak. You don’t learn very much kow-towing to a bunch of pompous ambassadors, but being on said ambassador’s own staff is a shade more rewarding.” Marlowe smiled thinly again, amusement seeming to hang in the air around her rather than be actively noticeable by her expression.

 

“Then I’ll have to do my best at interview to make sure that I look sufficiently up-and-coming.” Tobias grinned, rubbing his hands together slightly to off-set his mild nervousness in the face of such a professional.

 

“I imagine you won’t have too much difficulty if you’re as bright as Sluggy says, or have even half of Bobby’s brains.” Marlowe raised an eyebrow at Slughorn, who acted all innocence before noticing somebody else he needed to accost and connect, sweeping away. “When you get your interview date, though, drop me an owl if you want any particular hints. If nothing else, I can probably figure out who the panel will be and how to play them.” Again, that air of amusement which suggested a joke – but surrounded by the Slug Club, Tobias wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t serious about this.

 

“I may indeed do that. Thank you, Ms Marlowe.”

 

She shook her head, waving a hand at him. “Aurora, please. Ma’am was bad enough, and you’re not a child. That real world can be a great equaliser.” Marlowe glanced about the crowd, her eyes seeming to fall on a small group of older wizards with a slight hint of despair. “I should go make sure old Foggy doesn’t end up selling his soul to Palmerstone over there.” She looked him head on, fixing her gaze on his. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Tobias, and I’ll be sure to follow your progress with great interest. Please, give my regards to your mother.”

 

Then she was gone, though Tobias had no idea who either old Foggy or Palmerstone or whether the issue of soul-selling was literal or metaphorical, and he found himself suddenly alone in the middle of the swirling mass of the party.

 

It had taken off a little over the course of this conversation, and though he scanned the crowds for Annie, couldn’t see her, so instead made his way over towards the buffet table. It was a small fight with elbows to actually make it to the drinks, but he was thirsty enough that a little impropriety was the least of his troubles.

 

He filled a beaker and took a large gulp, glancing away from the crowd only as a familiar face appeared at the punch bowl next to him. “Hermione! I wondered if you’d make it.”

 

Hermione Granger gave him a briefly suspicious glance, expression suggested she was inclined to bolt at any second, then subsided as she realised who it was. “Oh, Tobias. I forgot you’d be here.”

 

Though she seemed moderately pleased to see him, her behaviour was also slightly odd, and she appeared to be scanning the crowd with a slightly furtive look in her eyes as she also helped herself to some punch. “Enjoying the party?”

 

“Only just got here and already Slughorn’s handing me over to people who could fix up my future. It’s rather surreal. But not unenjoyable,” Tobias confessed, also looking about the assembled. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Annie?”

 

“MacKenzie?” Hermione shook her head. “I’ve been staying away from Riley and that lot tonight, to be honest.”

 

“Any particular reason?” Tobias raised an eyebrow. The two of them rarely talked about anything other than academia, and tended to be more inclined to match wits over an intellectual challenge than actually discuss their personal lives. If there was some dislike between her and Riley, it was news to him.

 

“They’re liable to be where my date is.” She made a face, attempting only a little to hide it behind a sip of her punch.

 

“Your date? Who’d you come with?” Ever since she’d appeared at the Yule Ball with Viktor Krum, he’d realised he’d be unable to guess what her ‘type’ was.

 

“Cormac.”

 

“McLaggen?” Tobias also made a face.

 

“You see now why I’m avoiding him.” Another grimace, another sip of the punch.

 

“Did you lose a bet or something?”

 

“Not everyone has a fairy-tale romance they can bring with them to these sorts of events, Tobias.” Although her voice was slightly challenging, there was also the slightest hint of wistfulness about it. “Could you do me a favour, though? If you see Cormac and he’s looking for me, point him in the other direction.” She drained her cup of punch. “I’ve been loitering here a bit too long…”

 

“These parties are meant to be fun, you know, not an exercise in self-flagellation,” Tobias said.

 

“Oh, there’s fun to be had. Just not here and now,” Hermione said cryptically, putting her cup down, then she visibly shrank as her gaze drifted over Tobias’ shoulder. “Bugger, there he is…”

 

“You’re very strange, you know that?”

 

“That’s a little rich, Tobias, with your love life. I’ll owe you if you distract him, though, honestly.” Before he could ask her what she meant by her first statement, Hermione was gone, disappearing into the crowd, and Tobias turned to see Cormac McLaggen heading over with a slightly searching look on his face.

 

He was either ignoring or hadn’t seen Tobias, and was set to continue in the direction Hermione had gone, though it didn’t look like he’d yet spotted her. So Tobias stepped up, clapping him on the shoulder in a friendly fashion. “Cormac! Good to see you here.”

 

“Oh. Grey.” McLaggen turned, looking rather surprised and mildly uninterested. “Well, of course I’m here. Sluggy invited me, didn’t he?”

 

“Yes, well, I wasn’t sure you’d be able to make it. Some rumour about boils and the infirmary?” Tobias was quite astounded at how sincerely he could deliver such a bald-faced lie, and mildly confused as to where the inspiration had come from.

 

McLaggen frowned. “There aren’t any… boils… what are you talking about?” He shook his head, already, again, losing interest. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Hermione, have you? She came over here for some punch, I think.”

 

Tobias paused, scanning the room for hints of Hermione and, thus, wherever the wrong end of the room to send Cormac would be. He couldn’t see her but, in the opposite direction to the one she’d gone in, Slughorn was holding court about something that threatened to suck in everyone around him, gathering in passers-by in a determined collection.

 

“Not sure,” he said slowly. “But she mentioned to me at the last prefect meeting she was looking forward to talking to Slughorn about prospects within Gringotts.” It was yet another outright lie, but it would probably do.

 

McLaggen glanced over in the direction of Slughorn, and Tobias realised he’d misjudged his distraction as the burlier boy balked at the sight of the small black hole their Potions professor was putting together. “I’ll… check it out in a bit,” he said, making a face.

 

There was a small silence, during which Tobias wondered how he was going to get rid of McLaggen whilst still remaining remotely polite, before the other boy looked up at him. “How’s Doyle?” he said.

 

It was such a strange question for him to ask about Gabriel’s wellbeing that Tobias just stared at him for a moment. “He’s… fine.”

 

“Heard he’s been having fainting fits and what have you.” There were hints of a sneer about McLaggen’s lips which made it clear there was no genuine concern, and that his intention was instead the highlighting of a perceived weakness. “Hope it’s nothing serious.”

 

Tobias smiled humourlessly. “He’s fine. Up to his usual antics. He was well enough to take part in some sort of incident a few weeks ago by the lake… some sort of avian antic where Cal was transfigured into a giant duck, it was apparently very funny.” He paused, then snapped his fingers with mock-realisation. “Oh! Of course! It was tackling you and Wilson, wasn’t it!”

 

McLaggen’s expression darkened. “Funny? They were just looking for trouble, acting thuggish.”

 

“Whereas you and Wilson starting on Gabe when it’s two versus one without anyone else in sight is the pinnacle of Gryffindor bravery, isn’t it.” Tobias’ voice grew cold, and he straightened up, using his height to overcome any intimidation advantage McLaggen would have with his heavier build.

 

McLaggen looked like he was going to retort, and as his lip curled Tobias had a very sudden, sharp recollection of having him pinned up against the wall outside the Transfiguration classroom, wand against his neck, almost a year ago. He’d deserved it then, and if he pushed any further, he’d deserve it again now.

 

Of course, he wouldn’t turn violent at a party like this, even if McLaggen did throw more insults at his friends like last time, even if he did make comments about Tobias’ father again…

 

After all, if he did, Annie would probably side with him instead of you like last time anyway.

 

Tobias wasn’t sure where that treacherous thought came from, but wherever in his mind it had crept from it had Tanith’s voice, and a certain ring of sincerity that twisted his gut unpleasantly. He looked McLaggen, who had still not said anything, in the eye, and folded his arms across his chest.

 

“I had best go talk to more interesting people. Good evening, Cormac.”

 

Then he pushed past the burly Quidditch player and went back to scanning the crowd, though his mood had dropped distinctly from the altercation and the recollection it brought. Eventually he spotted Annie over in a corner, laughing with Riley, but instead of heading over there, he hesitated.

 

This was not like last time, he told himself firmly. She had changed, he had changed. The political situation of the houses had changed. People were friendlier. Older. Wiser. The relationship was not going to make anything explode.

 

He balked again as his treacherous memory summoned an image of Tanith standing in the rain, and looking like he’d just chewed up her heart and spat it out in his defensive anger – in his fear to avoid another war of feelings, another rift in his way of life, which had manifested itself in a fury which had only served to make things worse.

 

If that wasn’t an explosion, he wasn’t sure what was. But it was not something he could deal with now. Now, there was the party – with its good food, good drink, good atmosphere, and good company, which included his beautiful girlfriend.

 

Tobias nodded to himself as he headed through the crowd towards her, forcibly lifting his spirits. It was not like last time. It would not end like last time.

 

And he knew, in his heart, that he was absolutely right.

Chapter 21: The End of the Line
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Chapter 20: The End of the Line


 

Gabriel liked the trip back to King’s Cross on the Hogwarts Express. The journey to school was always too charged, too hectic, as over-enthusiastic friends were rejoined and everyone generally got more excitable than they really should be about going to school. It wasn’t like that heading back, especially not when going back for Christmas. Everyone was calm, everyone was relaxed. There was anticipation of what was to come with the festivities, and enjoyment of the last few moments spent with friends.

 

This year was, he had to confess, different. There was a new charge to the air, a tension that he hadn’t felt before. But he, like everyone else, could feel the shadow of the war falling over them, and the fear it brought. Going home was one thing, but what would ‘home’ be like now, in this new season of terror? As families splintered and cracked through tension, through loyalties, and through death, the festive season threatened to not be quite so festive.

 

He pushed these thoughts out of his mind as he ambled down the train corridor, munching on a pumpkin pastry he’d gone on a brief, hungry mission to find, and stopped before the door to the compartment that he, Tanith, and Cal had commandeered. Tobias was elsewhere, seeming to be splitting his time between the prefect’s carriage and the Gryffindor compartments, a servant to responsibility, his girlfriend, and the tension and unease that had settled over the foursome.

 

Gabriel didn’t know exactly what had transpired to have Tobias and Tanith avoiding each other like the plague, but he had a pretty good idea. This was more than the Yule Ball – this was big, and it was messy, and he didn’t know how or if it was even going to resolve itself.

 

But at least he didn’t have to care about it over Christmas.

 

This carefree attitude collapsed almost immediately when he opened the door to the compartment and stepped in to find Tanith and Bletchley sprawled across the bench in a tangle of limbs and locked lips.

 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”

 

Even though they didn’t seem to have heard him coming in, it was impossible to ignore the frustrated exclamation, and the two surfaced – Tanith looking shamefaced, Bletchley somewhat aggravated.

 

“Doyle. Hi. Now sod off,” the other boy said, smirking a smug smirk which didn’t help Gabriel’s mood.

 

“My stuff’s in here. Yours isn’t. You sod off.” If he tries to claim Tanith as ‘his stuff’, I’m going to hex him out the window.

 

Bletchley stood up, taller and burlier than him and not looking happy at being told to go. But before the situation could worsen, Tanith had leapt up, hands raised.

 

“It’s alright, Miles. I’ll catch up with you later, okay?” She shot Gabriel a warning look, and he was more than happy to fall silent as Bletchley grunted his agreement, then slunk out the door.

 

There was a long silence as the two of them stood there, Gabriel rubbing his temples, before he sighed. “You know, I thought these visions were giving me a bad headache, but what you lot put me through is more likely to floor me.”

 

“Oh, shut up.” Tanith waved a hand irritably, sitting down. “Nobody asked you to get involved. You stuck your own nose in.”

 

“But, I mean, Bletchley? Seriously?” Gabriel plonked himself down opposite her, scowling grumpily.

 

“Not seriously, and that’s the point. I could do with something that isn’t doom and gloom, or death and destruction, or… large and mysterious.” On the last she gestured vaguely at him, suggesting his visions to fall under that category.

 

Gabriel blinked. “I thought you and Tobias…”

 

“Tobias and I nothing.” This was said about as firmly as was possible without words doing actual harm. “Miles is uncomplicated and, well, fun. There are no debacles. No ideals. No responsibilities. No problems.”

 

“He’s a bit of a berk, though, isn’t he.” He didn’t phrase this as a question.

 

Tanith straightened up, scowling. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that I was supposed to live the life of a fucking nun after Tobias shot me down. For Merlin’s sake, if I sat around moping and pining after him, you’d be slapping me upside the head and telling me to move on! I’m moving on! I’m getting over it! And just because you don’t happen to approve of how I’m doing it, well, I’m sorry, but I don’t give a flying fuck!”

 

She was standing by now, and that small thread of tension which he’d been able to see holding in her despair over the last week seemed to have snapped, or at least briefly gone on holiday.

 

Gabriel paused, feeling the unfamiliar sensation of guilt washing over him – not to mention a distinct desire to get the hell out of this conversation. “Sorry,” he said, and almost meant it. She scowled again, but did sit back down, and he leaned forwards a little. “What did happen with Tobias?”

 

“Nothing much. Just, you know, I’m not capable of love, I’m too selfish to love, and he won’t be sucked into my little circle of self-obsession.” The sarcasm alone would have been enough to pummel him about the head, if her particular words weren’t already doing the job.

 

He looked up, frowning a little. “He said that?”

 

“Yeah.” Tanith sagged back in the chair, glaring out the window. The anger seemed to have faded, and she’d returned to that calmer, simmering brooding that had been her mood for the entire previous week. “I think I added the self-obsession bit, but that was pretty much it word for word.”

 

Gabriel leaned forwards again, this time to rest his head in his hands. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

 

She arched an eyebrow at him. “I’m not exactly thrilled myself, Doyle, but not even I’m distraught enough to react quite that extremely.” There was a pause, and she tilted her head curiously. “You alright?” The concern was a little grudging, but nevertheless genuine.

 

“Yeah.” He straightened up as he lied, blinking to dismiss the vision he’d had when he’d touched her from in front of his eyes. You don’t love, you can’t love

 

It had come true. What he’d seen had come to pass.

 

Which meant… so might the others. Which meant… so might the death.

 

He looked her in the eye, and opened his mouth to say all of this, get this burden off his chest, before another vision flashed before his eyes. This wasn’t anything magical, however, but an entirely mundane prediction of how the conversation would go just from knowing Tanith very well. She would rant and rave at him for not telling her, and he wouldn’t be able to give a good reason – or, at least, one she’d accept – as to why this was.

 

Fortunately, Tanith had drifted back off into her own world, satisfied with a bad lie, and was back to staring out the window. By now, the hills of Yorkshire were rolling past the train, vast and desolate.

 

“Are you okay?” It was a stupid question, but one he had to ask anyway.

 

“I’ll live.” She waved a hand dismissively. “More fish in the sea. That sort of thing.”

 

“More fish?”

 

“Muggle saying. Cal’s been saying it all week.” Tanith shrugged. “I think Grey’s the fish. There are other fish to catch. You know.”

 

Gabriel frowned. “Muggles are weird.”

 

“So You-Know-Who tells us.” She managed a dark smirk at this humourless joke.

 

Gabriel leaned back on his bench, lounging now with his hands behind his head. “So what do you have lined up for this Christmas?”

 

“Oh, I thought I’d get some NEWT studying done, enjoy a joyless celebration with a distracted family, and maybe drink myself into a stupor a couple of times to get over the problems. That kind of thing.” Tanith nodded amiably, eyes drifting out to the passing scenery once more. “You?”

 

“Sounds about the same. Dad’s been going mad with everything. The Ministry keep watching him like hawks, and…” Gabriel stopped himself, then inwardly cursed as he realised he had, for the first time in a long while, allowed something to escape unintentionally. He hoped that Tanith would be so distracted with her own pains that she wouldn’t notice.

 

Unfortunately, his friend was not studying to be an Auror for nothing, and dark eyes narrowed in his direction. “Why’s your Dad under scrutiny?”

 

Gabriel looked away, fixing his own gaze on Yorkshire’s rolling hills. “Just… you know. War stuff.”

 

“War stuff. Uh-huh.”

 

He glared briefly at her. “I’m not sure why it’s your business.”

 

Tanith straightened up, looking slightly taken aback. “It’s not. You just… mentioned it.”

 

“And I shouldn’t have.”

 

A dark silence fell across them, the two drifting away into their own macabre thoughts, a state which was becoming disturbingly the norm. It took some time before Tanith looked at him and spoke again, her voice softer this time. “Are you going to tell your folks?”

 

“About what?” Gabriel said crabbily.

 

“Your… visions.” She shrugged vaguely.

 

“Not much to tell. I see shit. I might be crazy.” Even as he spoke the words, even though he knew he might well be crazy, he could feel the invisible weight bearing down on his shoulders that reminded him how, regardless of anything else, these visions were right.

 

“I suppose.” Tanith nodded slowly. “You didn’t mention it to any of the others?”

 

“No.” Gabriel shook his head briskly, now beginning to regret having mentioned it to Tanith at all. If one wanted logic and reason, they went to Tobias for help – but Tanith possessed a hugely rational and pragmatic streak that was altogether too rooted in reality for him to be entirely comfortable with.

 

“Okay.”

 

Another silence drifted down, lasting a few minutes before Gabriel made a face and stood up. “I’m going to go see where Cal’s gone.”

 

“In search of Lockett, I think,” Tanith said vaguely, not looking up until Gabriel reached the door, when she turned abruptly to face him. “Doyle…”

 

He hesitated, door half-open, looking like he might bolt if she dropped anything too heavy on him. “Hm?”

 

“I didn’t mean to pry or push or anything. I’m sorry.” To hear an apology escaping Tanith Cole’s lips was almost enough to bowl him over, and so he was too stunned to cut her off when she continued. “I value you… listening to me, advising me. It might not have all worked out, but I appreciate the help. I’m not trying to be nosy, I’m just trying to return the favour.”

 

Gabriel shifted his feet, uncertain of how to respond to this uncharacteristic warmth. “I’ll be sure to call on you if I need help,” he lied, and fled before he could be further pressed, further interrogated.

 

He need not have bothered, and wouldn’t had he been aware of Tanith’s recent training, and the fact that she could seen the true message behind the lie as clearly as if he’d outright rejected her offer. Probably fortunately for them both, he thought his deception safe as he stepped into the corridor, and took a moment to enjoy the brief peace.

 

Wandering in between compartments was not so common that he could not savour a few moments of isolation before he pressed on and, believing himself safe from prying eyes, Gabriel slumped against the wall. The throbbing in his temples had stopped reaching such mind-piercing apexes, but had instead subsided to a constant, dull ache which was enough to muddy his senses if he didn’t concentrate. And concentrating through a constant headache seemed to only make it worse.

 

He straightened up briskly as one of the nearby compartment doors opened and out stepped Jack Urquhart, who wore a slightly aggravated expression. There was a split-second’s pause as the two boys eyed each other, obviously not having expected company in the corridor, before the burly Quidditch captain gave him a wry grin. “Fresh air?”

 

Ignoring the obvious fact that the air in the corridor was no less stuffy than in a compartment, and probably worse for lack of windows, Gabriel gave a vague shrug and nod. “Just taking a break.”

 

“Don’t blame you. You seem to be surrounded by bickering schoolkids these days.” Urquhart made a face and, to Gabriel’s displeasure, ambled closer to lean against the opposite wall. “With the drama and everything.”

 

“They like to think it’s not public knowledge,” Gabriel conceded, rubbing his temples. “As if we’re all blind.” He did not need to ask which drama, or which bickering schoolchildren it was that Urquhart referred to. The older students of Slytherin House, the ones who knew where the power lay or were just plain nosy gossips enough to be interested, had all been more than aware of the clashes between Tanith and Tobias. They might reach the wrong conclusions, or sex it up to be far more exciting than it was – in Gabriel’s opinion, at least. But nevertheless, they paid attention.

 

“It’s not like they’re King and Queen of Slytherin House,” Urquhart said, rubbing his eyes. “I mean, not with people like Malfoy prancing around. But they, well, should be. Monarchy of the Sane, maybe.”

 

“We call them The Non-Bastard Slytherin,” Gabriel supplied helpfully, though by the judgement of most outside of his House, he did not fit in such a category for his quick tongue and acerbic wit.

 

Urquhart snorted. “Easy and to the point. I like it.” He nodded. “Just doesn’t do for them to be fighting. We’re good with Grey around. He’s actually bringing us into the centre of the school. You know, directing things like we should be instead of lurking in the back and heckling. If he had half a brain for Quidditch he’d have been a good Captain.”

 

Gabriel didn’t say anything to this at first, just stood and silently listened. For Jack Urquhart, such a compliment was probably meant to be considered the highest praise.

 

Then he tilted his head and his gaze turned evaluating. “He is making us dance to Dumbledore’s tune, though.”

 

“Well, he is the headmaster, isn’t he. We got to dance to somebody’s tune, and the old codger’s at least still got most of his marbles.” Urquhart shrugged, his voice neither affectionate nor cutting on the subject of Dumbledore – merely a calm statement of fact.

 

“Someone else could be brought in. Someone not quite so, ah…” Gabriel paused theatrically, gesturing vaguely as he gave the appearance of trying to think of a certain word. “Compromising.”

 

“Everyone who tried to uproot Dumbledore failed. The governors in my first year, Umbridge last year. He’s not going anywhere.” Another shrug from the Quidditch captain. “So the way I see it we should go along with what he wants, instead of throwing little paddies because things aren’t going our way.”

 

“These ‘paddies’ could be considered instruments of change.” Gabriel kept his voice level, then met Urquhart’s gaze. “And I find it rather curious that you, of all people, are standing so supportively of Dumbledore’s administration. I didn’t think that would be approved of back home.”

 

Now Urquhart did stop, and where there had been the calm and jovial Quidditch captain moments before, now there was a boy two years his junior but his equal in height and superior in musculature standing upright and giving him a distinctly guarded look. “What do you think you know, Doyle?”

 

“Just that your family have long stood for the… old ways.” Gabriel allowed the smallest hint of a smile to tug at his lips. “I mean, your father in particular…”

 

“My father was under the Imperius curse when he did You-Know-Who’s bidding, and all charges against him were dropped.” Urquhart’s gaze narrowed as he took a step forwards. “I can’t say the same for your father.”

 

Gabriel did start a little as Urquhart played a card he didn’t know the other boy had in his hand, but managed to not show too much surprise on his face. “My father passed on information from inside the Department of Mysteries. Imperius or not, your father has blood on his hands. It’s a little different.”

 

“One’s a willing criminal. One’s not.” Urquhart smiled humourlessly. “Different indeed.”

 

“Somewhat.” Gabriel scratched the back of his neck with an air of indifference. “You know, Malfoy Senior and Nott Senior both claimed to be under the Imperius in the last war. And yet, there they are in Azkaban. Funny old world, no?”

 

“What’s your point, Doyle?”

 

There was an additional bite in Urquhart’s voice this time that did make Gabriel pause, and become keenly aware that now he wasn’t digging for information or getting a measure of the man in front of him, but rather antagonising someone who could definitely beat him up. It had always been a flaw of his to enjoy the baiting of an opponent so much that he might sometimes be blinded to their breaking point – which could turn into a breaking point for him.

 

So he gave an exaggerated shrug, and leaned back, allowing his body language to deflate in an apparent gesture of submission. “Nothing, Urquhart, nothing. Just finding it interesting that you’ve got more in your head than Quaffles and Bludgers.” I wonder where the Snitch is.

 

Urquhart looked at him for a moment, then made a distinct noise of aggravation and turned his back. “I have teammates to talk to.”

 

And back to the Quidditch, like it’s the only thing in the world. But it’s not, is it, and you know this, Jack…

 

Gabriel smiled a hidden smile, then straightened up as Urquhart began to march away. “Oh, Jack? I was just wondering about something…” It clearly took a degree of effort for the Quidditch captain to stop, though he didn’t look back. “I’ve seen you talking to some pretty redhead girl… anyone we should worry about?”

 

He kept his voice light, curious, chatty, though allowed that slight edge to hang in. He didn’t know if this shot in the dark would actually go anywhere, but whatever the response, he was confident he would learn more – at the very least, Urquhart had to be too straightforward a man to hide his feelings successfully from him.

 

There was a pause, but not much of one, and Urquhart’s shoulders visibly tensed further as he spoke. “Fuck off, Doyle.”

 

Then he was gone, and although his response didn’t reveal all, it left him wiser than he’d been before. There was a girl. Interesting.

 

So it was with a small chuckle that Gabriel continued his way down the corridor, his pace jaunty, hands shoved in his pockets. Maybe his housemates weren't a total waste after all. Maybe he should stop judging them on the surface and perhaps, perhaps, dig a little deeper.

 

Of course, digging deeper just then had demonstrated further that there might be some truth to the visions and the headaches. With Urquhart it could just be a coincidence, but hot on the heels of his prediction for Tanith and Tobias - and as he looked back, now, remembering that vision, his mind could very easily fill in the gaps for it to have been Tobias doing the shouting - it was a little more concerning.

 

This sobering thought continued to fester as he ambled towards where he thought he might find Ravenclaw seventh-years, so much so that there was no spring in his step nor smile on his face when he finally came to a halt, and began to glance discreetly through compartment windows, hunting for his target but not wanting to either intrude or open hostilities with apparent nosiness. At least, he reassured himself, he was in Ravenclaw territory, rather than having gone looking for Tobias and so finding himself surrounded by Gryffindors.

 

He stopped as he found the compartment he'd been looking for, which was empty save for Cal Brynmor and Nat Lockett. Therein lay the second reason for checking at the doorway before going in; he had no desire for a repeat of his interruption of Tanith and Bletchley. But he need not have worried this time - the two were seated opposite each other, lounging on the benches and seeming to be chatting amiably.

 

Gabriel reached for the handle - and then hesitated as his eyes lingered for a few seconds longer on the scene. He didn't know Lockett very well, but could at least confirm her to be tolerable. Good humoured and quick-witted, she provided all he expected from a Ravenclaw, with the added bonus of not being insufferably arrogant. Suspicious of inter-House romance with the chaos that Tobias and MacKenzie had wreaked from their pairing, Lockett put most of his fears to rest. And Cal seemed to like her.

 

He looked now at his friend, probably the person he was closest to in all the world - though that wasn't saying very much. He had been different these last few months. Stuffed up and tense, like there had been something inside of him trying to burst out, but he dared not release it. He'd walked about like a towering pile of muscle that would punch someone if they put one foot wrong, and yet it had never seemed to be anger that wound him up so tightly. Fear? Resentment? Or something else?

 

It had only been their various distractions which had stopped them from staging some sort of intervention, like Tanith and Cal had done against him with his headaches. But by the time they had grown truly concerned at his behaviour, truly worried, Tanith had been lost in her swirling jealousy and all efforts to balance that against her Auror studies, and Gabriel had been distracted with... whatever was happening to him.

 

So it was probably for the best Nat Lockett had come along and decided to stay, and that they hadn't driven her off with Slytherin territorialism. Because when he was around her, or thinking about her, Cal was no longer that internal struggle of tension. Gabriel didn't know how far their relationship went - Cal had mentioned it to be more like a friendship with the door wide open to more as and when they wanted it - but it was, he considered, a poor reflection upon the loyalty of those who had known him longest the Cal Brynmor's mind seemed to have been saved not by them, but by this outsider.

 

She did not, Gabriel reflected, necessarily deserve his friendship for this. But she certainly deserved his respect, and though he had long been happy to play the quintessential loner, he had never been remiss in giving respect where it was earned.

 

He finally turned the handle, popping his head around the edge of the door as if he hadn't been standing and watching them for the last minute - though they had failed to notice him at all, so caught up did they seem in whatever joke had captured them for the moment. Surprisingly, it was Nat who noticed him first, looking over and catching him with a beaming smile whose charm he could understand had entrapped Cal.

 

“Gabe! Come on in. Hide away from the drama of the world.” She patted the seat next to her familiarly, as Cal grinned a broad, toothy grin, leaning back in his chair.

 

This was strange. No open desire for him to leave, like with Tanith and Bletchley. No forced politeness and stilted atmosphere, like the few occasions he’d been around Tobias and MacKenzie together. Perhaps, just perhaps, this would be a good place to hide until this journey of disaster was over.

 

Maybe they’d let him stay here even when the train pulled in. But if not, there could probably be some Exploding Snap in the meantime to make up for it.

 

Chapter 22: The Ties That Bind
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Chapter 21: The Ties That Bind


 

"It's been a while since I've seen you with your sketchbook."

 

Tanith almost fell off the fence she was perched on as her father's voice drifted across the field towards her. It was almost instinctive that she slammed the sketchbook shut, hiding away whatever scribblings were within, and with an all-too familiar tension in her shoulders that she turned to face Daedalus Cole.

 

"It's been a while since you've seen me for more than five minutes, Dad," she pointed out, not without a hint of resentment. She'd been back home for a grand total of one day now, and for the last twenty-four hours, her father had been... elsewhere. Busy at work, her mother had said. But even with the latest reveals about the true Cole family business, even with Altair having nodded firmly in agreement with her mother's words, it was hard to dislodge the old, familiar sense of abandonment.

 

"This is true. And I'm sorry for that. But you know now, at least, why it's unavoidable on occasion." Daedalus moved to join her on the fence, waving a hand at the winged horses that were, to the populace at large, the full weight of the Cole family's money, influence, and importance. "These might be magnificent beasts, but they're not the be all and end all."

 

"Why didn't you tell me in the summer?" The words escaped curtly, bitterly, and Tanith scowled across the field at the Abraxas, not wanting to meet his gaze. "When I threw it all in your face?"

 

"You were angry," her father replied calmly. "And, to be honest, so was I. I didn't want to tell you in such a heated moment. To have you understand the nature of what I do... it's a significant thing. So I waited until I knew for sure it was the right decision. Until I knew that you were ready."

 

"It's not like knowing automatically endangers me," Tanith pointed out.

 

Daedalus smiled a soft, sad smile, and it was enough for his daughter to peer at him curiously. He had always seemed to be a man so cut off from the world, the quintessential distant eccentric. In that moment he seemed to have all the burdens of the world weighing down on him, and he hardly looked like her father at all. "It does. Knowledge is power, and you are an intelligent girl."

 

He looked over at her as a confused expression crossed her face. "Now knowing the truth, and with all you've known already about my business, how much about my real work have you extrapolated?"

 

Tanith shifted a little uncomfortably. "I have... theories."

 

"Right or wrong, they'll have a basis in truth, too. So if you were to be captured by a Death Eater, they could find out rather quickly that you know my actual work, my actual role in this war. Your ignorance would no longer be a shield. Furthermore, if they were to interrogate you, the conclusions they would find might actually be... useful. Accurate." Daedalus somehow managed to keep his expression calm at the prospect of her interrogation.

 

The mask faltered upon her response, however. "Though if I was ignorant, they might just kill me as being useless."

 

Daedalus frowned, hopping to his feet. "They might. Which is why I hope that you will never be in that situation. Which is why I've had Altair training you. So you can defend yourself."

 

"I intend to do more with these lessons than just stay out of trouble, Dad," Tanith said, and again she saw his face crumple. "The skills he's teaching me... I mean to be an Auror. He can help me be an even better one."

 

"And when that happens, you will be surrounded by trained professionals, and be thus trained yourself." Daedalus said this as if he was trying to reassure himself rather than just remind her. "So you'll be at a bit more of an advantage than you are now. In the meantime, I want you to be... ready. Safe."

 

Tanith paused, nodding as her father's words sunk in. Then, "How much does Mum know?"

 

Daedalus grinned wryly. "Everything. You honestly think she'd tolerate me flitting around and about the country as much as I do in the name of horses?"

 

But it's alright for you two to never see each other so long as it's for the greater good? Tanith suppressed a shiver, concluding - not for the first time - that there were many things about her father's life she would possibly never understand.

 

"Anyway." Daedalus shook his head. "I intend for the lessons to continue over the holidays. You and Altair can get a lot of work done out of school. He's got something for you now, in fact - he's in the drawing room." Then he turned back towards the frolicking horses, expression going distant again, as if this was the end of the matter.

 

Tanith knew that it was better than to argue with her father when he had reached a conclusion so decisively and then acted as if the situation was not up for discussion. Silently, she slid off the fence, slightly frozen grass crunching beneath her feet as she padded back up towards the house. It was still mid-morning, and despite the cold, the sun was still bright and enough to chase away the worst of the chill of mid-December.

 

The house had seen the tender attention of the elves in anticipation of Christmas, and so she had to duck under some tinsel threatening to garrotte her as she stepped in through the back door. Rubbing her hands together, she stomped mud and ice off her boots before kicking them off, and was immediately glad of the fact that the House Elves went to great lengths to make sure that the kitchen was cosy and warm all time of year. In summer, it was frustrating - right now, a God-send.

 

The drawing room was just next door, a cosy room for family members and staff to retreat to away from the world, rather than the more grand lounge suitable for receiving guests, or the extensive dining room big enough to feed the five thousand. It was also more comfortably decorated, with a soft carpet and over-stuffed armchairs which remained luxurious however much repair they were in need of. Where others walls in the house were adorned with portraits of Coles long dead, of awards won by Daedalus for his horse breeding, and other fine art collected by her mother, this was perhaps the only public room of the house where the walls featured genuine family photographs.

 

Such photos were the only sort of wizarding display that Tanith didn't outright object to. They were meant to capture a memory, an event. So the faces waving down at her weren't anywhere near as distressing as the painting of an Abraxas trotting in place she could see down the hall, an image which would have been yet more stunning when static. She preferred to be able to let the entire scene soak into her vision, to take in all of the nuances of the display. If it was moving, it was...

 

Tacky, really. Soulless. Just some gimmick.

 

But there was no time to really consider this as she stepped into the drawing room. Altair stood in a corner, in his long, dark, hard-wearing robes, able as ever to dominate his environment without the slightest gesture. But what made Tanith pause was what sat on the table in front of him, and looked for all the world like a crystal ball.

 

"I flunked Divination," she said guardedly, closing the door behind her.

 

"Just as well that this has nothing to do with seeing the future, then. Nor the past." Altair looked up at her, smiling. "I thought we'd have a little treat today, considering it's the festive season and everything."

 

"I hope this treat isn't going to involve you throwing crystal balls at me to dodge." Tanith stepped over, peering curiously at the device. For now, its surface was just a milky-white sheen, but it seemed to be much more opaque than any of the cloudy tools of Divination she'd seen.

 

"That's not the plan. No, this doesn't have much to do with the training we're doing, but it could be of use to you in the future. And doubtless of interest now." Altair gestured to one of the nearby seats, and she moved over to perch on the edge, expression by now beadily curious.

 

"Alright. What is it?"

 

"The Aurors are not psychic. Regrettably." Altair gave a small grimace and a nod. "However, they are an extensive organisation, with members often in the field across the entire country. Reports only go back in to the offices if a situation arises which requires an Auror's expertise."

 

"I know they have a communication system, yeah." Tanith frowned a little. "Is this it? An orb?"

 

"You know that the Aurors have existed since before they were a formal part of the Ministry. Their hunt for Dark Wizards has gone on for over six hundred years. And so there are many traditions which step outside of what might be procedure for the MLE." Altair patted the orb lightly. "This," he continued, "is a Seeing Stone. Each Auror office has one, to allow wizards to communicate with their home base via their wand. Good if the base needs to dispatch an Auror already in the field, or if said Auror needs to request backup. It's more reliable and secure than Floo. And the operator of the Seeing Stone can also communicate between branches, and back to head office, if something surpasses local capabilities."

 

"And you have one? How?" Tanith squinted at the Seeing Stone. "Isn't that illegal?"

 

"A little." Altair managed a small smile again. "However, it can be very useful to know where the Death Eaters are ahead of time, and nobody is better at keeping track of their activities than the Aurors. How do you think I knew about what happened in the Peak District over the summer so quickly?"

 

"I didn't think about it," she confessed. "So... we can listen in on the Auror communications?"

 

"Stone to stone only; we won't be able to hear the local operations or discourse between the Aurors. However... it can be remarkably insightful, not to mention useful. And even a squib like me can activate this with the right phrase - it was considered unwise for its usage to solely require a wand in case of emergencies." Altair stepped over to the orb, then gently rested both hands in it. "Aegis Animus."

 

The opaque sheen made way, very suddenly, for a variety of images. Tanith dimly recognised the main office in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement swimming under the Seeing Stone's surface - rapidly, some other office she didn't recognise surged into view, and the faces of a variety of witches and wizards, maybe half a dozen in total, drifted in and out of sight.

 

"North West reports further sightings of lycanthropic activities in the Lake District; Aurors dispatched to investigate signs of dark wizards."

 

"South East reports continued tensions within Dover on potential dark wizards attempting to flee the country; complete lack of cooperation from European offices. Recommends Central tells ambassadors to sod off in future discourses."

 

A wry chuckle. "Central will take that under advisement, South East..."

 

Altair smiled smugly. "Ah, good. Hourly report time. Sit down, listen, it'll be interesting."

 

Tanith leaned forwards, hands clasped together, and allowed the wave of voices to begin washing over her.

 

"South West reports absolutely nothing is going on and we're bored to death here, you lucky bastards..."

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

"More application forms?" Melissa Grey smiled brightly as she sat herself down at the breakfast table and peered across at her son, who was bent over a small pile of papers. "I thought you had everything arranged?"

 

"I have a plan, and I have potential, and I have contacts. I even have interview dates." Tobias lifted his had, waggling a quill at his mother. "What I lack are actual job contracts. And so until I have such a thing, I will continue to search far and wide to ensure I have somewhere to go once I'm done at school."

 

"You're not sure the international affairs route is the one?" She tilted her head at him curiously, beginning to butter some toast.

 

"Oh, I know it's what I want to do. But there are different ways of approaching it if I don't succeed. And, if necessary, jobs I could do just have an income come August. No offence, Mum, but I don't fancy coming to live here after leaving school if I can help it." Tobias chuckled, shovelling in a mouthful of cereal before going back to his writing.

 

Melissa snorted softly. "If I'll even be here. Gringotts are desperate for me to take the work in Paris."

 

Tobias glanced up again. "Oh? That's good, isn't it?" His voice was a little guarded and a little curious.

 

"Well, I'd hope I'd have the chance to see you more often when you leave school." Melissa looked about the breakfast table, then sighed when she realised the jam was on the far side of the kitchen, heading to retrieve it. "But I imagine you're not necessarily going to want to hang around with your ageing mother more than you have to."

 

"Hardly ageing, Mum." Tobias looked over at her fondly, then paused as a thought occurred to her. "That does remind me, though... at Professor Slughorn's Christmas Party, he introduced me to a lady named Aurora Marlowe."

 

There was a pause as Melissa very slowly and deliberately spread the jam over her toast. "Aurora Marlowe. Really."

 

"She said she'd known Dad." Tobias didn't take his eyes off his mother, watching her every move as he spoke with hawk-like intensity. "And asked me to pass on her best wishes to you." He paused, chewing on a lower lip before continuing. "She's a Consul to Moscow, and has said she can help me with my application to DIMC..." He said the name as she had, pronouncing it as a word rather than a collection of letters.

 

"Ah. 'Dimc'." Finally, Melissa turned around. "That's very nice of her," she said neutrally.

 

Tobias frowned, leaning back in his chair. "Who is she?"

 

Melissa sighed, returning to her seat and beginning to finally tuck in to her breakfast. "She was a friend of your father's at school, and after. They were very close, both prefects together, something of a terrible twosome." She brushed a stray lock of hair back with the practiced appearance of one very good at pretending to be at ease. "I suppose she was to your father what Tanith Cole is to you, by all accounts."

 

Though it had probably just been intended as an expression to describe a close friendship, Tobias couldn't help but twitch a little at the comparison, playing with his quill. "I see," he replied neutrally.

 

Strangely, his mother seemed to react better to Tobias' suddenly reticent demeanour. "No, we didn't get on particularly well, I'll confess. Just as I had friends and family to tell me marrying a Muggle-born wizard was a bad idea, Robert had Marlowe to tell him that marrying a Pureblood from an old family was equally bad."

 

"But he ignored her." This was a rather self-evident statement, and Tobias, living proof of this development, shook his head. "I'm just surprised I never met her before. Most of Dad's friends stayed in touch all along."

 

"Marlowe was always strange. And I don't think she particularly wanted to be around me." Melissa shrugged. "But she's brilliant at what she does, no doubt about it. If she can help you get a job at Dimc, by all means, enlist her aid. I cannot fault her professionalism."

 

"Just her personal behaviour." Tobias frowned. "I'm not sure I'd be happy about taking help from someone you dislike, Mum. I mean, it kind of suggests there's something off about her..."

 

"Your father held her in the highest esteem." Melissa said this quietly, firmly. "Despite their disagreements, I never heard him speaking ill of her. She was a good friend to him. Take that into account before you make a decision based solely on my judgement."

 

There was a long pause as Tobias twirled his quill, looking rather determinedly distracted, and Melissa finished her breakfast. But when they were both done and Tobias still sat staring into space, she leaned towards him a little, expression quizzical. "Something troubling you still?"

 

"Hm?" Tobias glanced up, then shook his head and waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, nothing. Just... wondering if history repeats itself." He shook his head again, then leaned forwards to look back at the papers before him. "It's nothing, I'm sure."

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

"Catch." The bottle came whizzing through the air and it was only with a desperate flailing that Cal managed to grab it before it hit him in the chest. "You look like you need it."

 

"I need a shaken-up bottle of beer?" Cal rolled his eyes, chuckling as he tapped the remote control and changed the channel, swapping one mindless Christmas TV escapade for another. Lounging back on the sofa with a satisfied sigh, he eyed the bottle dubiously, assessing whether it would be safe to open.

 

"You should have caught it better." Will Rayner ambled out of the kitchen, bearing his own, opened bottle of beer with a smug expression as he took a swig. "So how's the year been so far, kiddo?" he asked, surveying the cosy living room of his home before settling down on the sofa next to Cal, snatching the remote off him in a patriarchal manner.

 

Cal paused, pulling his wand out and, closing one eye, magically popping the cap off the beer with a simple mutter. Fortunately, foam did not go everywhere, and the drink seemed settled. "Same as ever, mostly. Classes are going fine."

 

"How's being back on the Quidditch team?" Rayner smiled a broad smile of recollection. "Ah, I remember the year we lifted the Cup... good times."

 

"For a filthy 'claw, yeah." Cal chuckled. "It's good. We've got a good Captain this time, the fellow really knows his stuff. And he's putting together a good team." He took a swig of beer. "After losing to Gryffindor I don't know if we'll win, but right now I'd just be happy to start laying the groundwork so that next year have a good team to build upon. I've been in a Cup-winning side already. Let the next kids have the glory."

 

"Good lad. Though if you're in for a chance, let me know when the last match is. I'll get time off and come up to watch you. It'll be against Hufflepuff, won't it?" Rayner paused, seeming to count in his head. It was a mercy that, throughout the centuries, it was an exception if the Quidditch schedule would change.

 

"We're guaranteed to win that match, at least. Hufflepuff are a mess." Cal glanced sideways, sobering a little. Maybe it was the beer sending his thoughts dark. Maybe it was the glittery carol singers dancing on the screen. "Do you... d'you know what happened to the O'Neal family back in September?"

 

Rayner made a face. "Do we have to talk work?"

 

"It's current affairs these days, Will. It's everyday gossip. It's front-page news." Cal also grimaced, hiding it behind another gulp of beer. "It's not cloak and dagger in the background any more. But if you don't want to talk about it..."

 

"No, you're right. I'd just rather not have to." Will Rayner sighed, leaning back on the sofa and having another gulp of beer. "Duncan O'Neal was one of the best arithmancers in the country. The Death Eaters wanted him for... something. No idea what. He refused. So they killed his family, and then they killed him. Young Connor O'Neal included."

 

Cal winced. "Connor had a sister, didn't he."

 

Rayner looked straight ahead, expression one of perfect control. "She was nine."

 

There was a long silence, the beer not doing enough work in unwinding the twist in Cal's gut. The tension in the air, hanging over them and almost as powerful as a Dementor in sucking any cheer from the festive season, was broken only when Cal leaned over and retrieved the remote control from his foster-father's grip. "So.Muppet's Christmas Carol for the umpeenth time?"

Chapter 23: The Importance of Being
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Chapter 22: The Importance of Being




 

“Beer?” Although it was phrased as a question, there seemed to be no actual choice about the matter as Cal placed a pint glass in front of Tobias and slid onto the stool opposite him in this small table in a corner of the Leaky Cauldron.

 

“No, no beer. Beer’s horrible.” Tobias grinned wryly as he lifted the pint and took a gulp. “Alright, just the one, though. Can’t get too silly; I’m off to see Annie later.”

 

“Oh, that reminds me.” Nat looked up from her butterbeer, smacking herself on the forehead in recollection and glancing eagerly at him. “Theron Howlett’s party tomorrow. You’re both coming, right?”

 

Tobias blinked. “Howlett’s throwing a party?” It wasn’t the only question on his mind. The other was: Why would a guy I’ve hardly exchanged two words with invite me?

 

“Christmas Eve’s Eve party. I know, true Ravenclaw wit there.” She scratched the back of her neck a little sheepishly. “He has a free, large house, and a lot of drink he needs the help of Hogwarts’ finest to finish off. And told us to invite anyone so long as they’re not complete pillocks.”

 

“You won’t be shot for bringing Slytherins?” Cal exchanged a wry grin with Tobias at this.

 

“Funnily enough, you guys aren’t persona non grata any more. Somehow, Toby here’s made being a Slytherin cool.” Nat paused, rubbing her nose. “Well. He’s made it not a hanging offence, anyway.”

 

“Good, I was going to say. I thought I made it cool.” Cal smirked.

 

“Sure, you did, Cal. Sure you did.” She patted him on the shoulder reassuringly. “Everyone’s digging the green-and-silver because you made it the ‘in’ thing.”

 

Tobias chuckled as his friend straightened up to mock-preen. “Where and when?”

 

“Just pop over to Cal’s at about six tomorrow. We can all apparate together. It’s only going to be seventh years – maybe a few Quidditch contacts. Just don’t bring any of the knuckle-draggers?”

 

“No Montague, no Pucey. Check.” Cal nodded.

 

“Though I think Bletchley, Drake, and Larkin will be there. Considering Theron’s still trying like mad to get into Drake’s knickers…” Nat tilted her gaze upwards thoughtfully. “I think he had to find a way to invite her without incurring any suspicion.”

 

“And they say romance is dead,” Tobias said dryly, lifting his pint to take a large, soothing gulp.

 

“They say chivalry is dead, too, but those Gryffindors just won’t die.” Cal sighed melodramatically.

 

“Evidently you two are drifting into a spot of fantastical daydreaming,” Nat commented as they both developed exaggeratedly far-away expressions, “so I’ll leave you to have your manly chats. With lots of back-slapping and lager-drinking.” She grinned, finishing off her butterbeer and leaping to her feet energetically. “Oh, and bring Cole along, will you? She’s been looking like she could do with a party.”

 

There was a pause as Tobias’ expression soured and Cal just looked questioningly at him, until Nat scratched the back of her neck. “Or, um, don’t. That’s cool too.”

 

“No, no. We’ll be inviting Tanith. Won’t we, Tobias.” Cal’s voice was rather pointed as he almost glared at his friend, who sighed and waved his pint glass vaguely.

 

“Fine. Whatever.”

 

“Okay.” Nat glanced between the two of them, then straightened up and gave a broad, infectious grin like nothing had happened. “Then I’ll see you two likely lads tomorrow. Try to not pass out in here, old Tom doesn’t like that very much.”

 

It was with a detached interest that Tobias nodded and waved and said his goodbyes, then settled down to watch the farewell between Nat and Cal. It was a bizarre sort of ritual, a kind of half-hug which was friendly and intimate without actually giving him any particular clues as to where boundaries lay – or, indeed, if there were any at all.

 

So he raised an eyebrow at Cal as Nat bounced out of the door, tilting his head curiously. “So what’s going on between you two?”

 

Cal grinned sheepishly and shrugged. “We’re friends, you know?”

 

“No? Friends? What’s that?”

 

Cal rolled his eyes. “Witty. We’re just seeing how things go. Don’t want to rush into anything. We don’t even know each other very well yet. But I like her, and… yeah. Could go somewhere.”

 

“I never thought you’d be the more cautious of the two of us,” Tobias said, sighing and taking another gulp of his beer.

 

“Yeah, well, look where it got you.” Cal waved a hand a little dismissively, glancing towards the door as if he could catch one final glimpse of Nat’s disappearing figure, though his slight frown suggested it was a quest in vain.

 

Tobias straightened up. “What’s that supposed to mean? I have a girlfriend, things are stable, I’m happy.”

 

“Yeah, how’s that going?” Cal turned back, having a generous swig from his own, half-empty pint glass.

 

“It’s going… fine.” Tobias blinked, almost surprised to find that he wasn’t lying with that statement. It wasn’t the whole truth, but technically, anything that wasn’t ‘fine’ had nothing to do with him and Annie. Nothing at all. “As good as last time. But with less stupidity.”

 

“That’s assuming dumping you is stupidity.” Cal said this with a broad smile to demonstrate the potentially perilous joke. “Good to hear, anyway. Was afraid of it going pear-shaped like last time.”

 

Tobias scowled. “Why is everyone worrying about that?”

 

Cal paused, peering at him a little curiously and setting down his beer. “Because… she screwed you over quite horribly and we don’t want to see that happen to you again?” He said this slowly, like explaining something to a child.

 

“Funny nobody mentioned this until recently,” Tobias snorted.

 

There was another silence as Cal scratched the back of his head. “Sorry, Toby, but you aren’t exactly the best guy in the world at listening to something you don’t want to hear.”

 

Tobias looked sharply at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Cal blinked. “Means you’re getting defensive right now just talking about it. I’m your mate, I’m just looking out for you.” He paused, looking down at his pint glass as if it could give him the answers he sought or the strength for his next question. “Is that why you and Tanith aren’t talking again? You argued about Annie?”

 

Yet another pause as Tobias tried to keep his slightly guilty expression under control. “Something like that.”

 

“Something like?” Cal raised an eyebrow, now looking honestly curious. “You two having spats isn’t exactly unusual, but it normally takes something pretty big to drive in a wedge this large. Haven’t seen one this massive since the Yule…”

 

His voice trailed off as his brain reached a conclusion before the sentence did, and Cal looked up, tiny light bulbs seeming to be almost visibly lighting up behind his eyes. “Oh. Reverse?” He sighed, not waiting for a response before he nodded slowly. “That would explain a lot.”

 

“I wish people would stop talking like this is something that’s been going on forever. It makes me sound dumb,” Tobias snapped irritably, drumming his fingers on the table. “It’s nothing, okay? She’s just being unreasonable again.”

 

“Again?”

 

“Like she always has been about Annie and me.”

 

“Oh. Unreasonable like suggesting that it might all go up in flames between a Slytherin and a Gryffindor? When it, um, did? Unreasonable like suggesting history might repeat itself?” Cal said this quietly rather than provocatively.

 

“It’s more than that, Cal, and you know it.” Tobias slammed his pint glass down, contents spilling a little across the table in front of him.

 

“How much more serious?”

 

“She said that she…” Tobias just about managed to stop the words spilling out in anger, as unprepared to hear them from his own mouth as he had been to hear them from hers. He shook his head firmly. “Never mind.”

 

As always, the words ‘never mind’ failed to resolve a conversation. Cal’s eyes widened to the size of saucepans. “You’re shitting me,” he declared flatly as two and two were added up and did not reach an underestimating three.

 

“I wish I were. She’s just being overly emotional, she’ll get over it.” Tobias waved a hand angrily.

 

“Yeah, because she’s a right ray of sunshine and coping these days,” Cal pointed out. “What happened? I mean, did you let her down gently?”

 

A long silence met this as Tobias’ expression now turned rather sheepish as well as guilty, and he failed to slip the appropriate mask over this. It was not helped by Cal’s own face darkening somewhat in response.

 

“What did you do?” his friend asked quietly, firmly.

 

“I was clear. I was honest. I did not leave her with any false impressions of hope.” Tobias said this carefully, well aware that he was trying to present his response in the best possible light, and feeling a small twist of self-loathing in his stomach as he said it.

 

“So you crushed said hope with a ten-tonne jackhammer,” Cal concluded.

 

“Maybe.” Tobias frowned. “What’s one of those?”

 

“I’m not sure, but it sounds heavy and, you know, crushing?” Cal shrugged. “How bad are we talking here?”

 

Tobias groaned a groan that contained within it a symphony of guilt as he lowered his head into his hands. “Heavy and crushing.”

 

“There’s something wrong with you two, you know? Can neither of you deal with problems healthily and, maybe, normally?” Cal rubbed his temples. “No bloody wonder she’s looking like someone ripped out her heart and shat on it.”

 

Tobias lifted his head balefully. “Thank you, Cal. Thank you so very, very much. I should know to go to you for support in the future.”

 

Cal pointed a finger at him. “Don’t you go bitching at me when you’re the one who’s screwed up, boyo,” he said. “I didn’t kick a puppy.”

 

“She’s hardly a puppy.”

 

“Then act all un-gentleman-like. Whatever.” Cal rolled his eyes and tossed his hands into the air. “Must I always play peacemaker here? Look, nothing’s unsalvageable. I’m sure she’s upset. So here’s the plan. Because it always has to be me who comes up with a plan for these things…”

 

“Yes, I’m a bad man and you are our salvation. Get to the point.” Despite his sharp words, Tobias sounded more guilty than bitter.

 

“I’ll get Nat to soften her up at the party and then you can go make peace. Say you’re sorry you were an arse and you two can make up. Get things to go back to normal. Bob’s your uncle.” Cal shrugged, grinning with the perceived ease of it all.

 

“Nat will ‘soften her up’?” Tobias repeated dubiously. “Even wondering what that means, you do realise this is Tanith we’re talking about?”

 

“Ah, therein lies the beauty. We have never before had an ally on our side who is actually female. So we can get someone to interact with her on her level.” Cal grinned like the cat who got the canary. “Nothing dramatic. I’ll just tell her to try and get Tanith in a good, party-like mood. She’s good at cheering people up.”

 

Tobias sighed. “It could work.”

 

“Do you have a better idea?” Cal said.

 

“I… no. Not really.” Tobias sagged, glancing down at his watch. “I should probably get going. Heading off to meet Annie.”

 

“I thought we were having drinks.” Cal stopped, looking briefly outraged and a little disappointed.

 

“I… we were.” Tobias shook his head, downing his pint quickly and standing up. “This was just a bit last-minute, and I’d like to see her before Christmas when it’s not a crowded party.”

 

“Oh. Alright.” Cal slumped in his seat, now toying with his nearly-empty pint glass. “See you tomorrow?”

 

“And the drinks on Boxing Day. Definitely have a good sit-down then. ‘Bye.” Tobias nodded firmly, putting his coat on and heading for the door to the back yard without much more than a faint wave of a goodbye to Cal.

 

The fresh air was cold and relaxing, and killed any of the faint numbing around the edges that his pint had prompted. He took a moment to make sure he had everything, then pulled his wand out and closed his eyes, considering the directions he’d been given and the place he intended to come to, then muttered a charm under his breath.

 

The world rushed away with that not unusual lurch of the stomach, and although Tobias – ever the perfectionist – had mastered the art of a smooth apparition, it was impossible for the process to be entirely without discomfort. So it was just as well the chill of late December had nullified the effects of the alcohol, as his stomach took a second to settle as he opened his eyes.

 

He was no longer in the back yard of the Leaky Cauldron – rather, in the back garden of a rather pleasant-looking detached house in Surrey. A quick glance about confirmed that he was not in a position to have been spotted appearing out of thin air by anyone standing at a window of a neighbouring house, and with a slight spring in his step, he headed across the garden and towards the back door.

 

His knock was answered almost immediately by a rather smug-looking Annie, who was grinning even before she saw him. She had obviously expected him – but then, really, who else was likely to come to the back door?

 

“You’re earlier than I thought you’d be,” she said by way of greeting, immediately grabbing him by the hand and pulling him inside. The gesture seemed to be just as much through her own pleasure at seeing him as it was to avoid the chill, though the door was closed pretty much the moment he was inside.

 

“What can I say? I wanted to see you,” Tobias admitted, a small smile playing about his lips. She looked more relaxed here than she ever did at Hogwarts, casual in jeans and a t-shirt bearing the logo of some Muggle band he’d never heard of. Although he hadn’t been in the house before, and his eyes did linger about to note the presentable, but stylish décor of the kitchen, he found it difficult to be interested in his environment with her in front of him.

 

“It’s only been about three days,” Annie laughed, locking the door behind him.

 

“It feels longer.” Tobias shrugged off his coat, then glanced about for somewhere to put it.

 

She met his gaze. “Yeah. It does.”

 

Then the coat was dropped on the floor as Tobias closed the gap between them, reaching out and lips seeking hers to meet hungrily in a kiss that, like he’d said, spoke of a separation of weeks, not days. His hand came up to cup her chin, but before she could step in to the embrace he had pushed forwards, backing her up against the door. Their bodies pressed together, for a long moment all he knew was her warmth against him, the parting of her lips against his, her smell and her taste and the outside world was nowhere to be seen.

 

Some lifetimes later the kiss broke. Her hands were by now entangled in his hair, and she didn’t seem remotely inclined to argue with how he had her pinned against the door – nor, with the way both of their breathing was coming raggedly, could she necessarily have been able to.

 

“Sorry,” Tobias breathed once he had managed to regain control of his voice, not sounding very sorry at all and punctuating his words with another short kiss. “I just… I want to do that every time I see you. Might not be appropriate in the middle of the corridor at school, though.”

 

“Don’t be sorry,” Annie whispered to his mouth, her fingers moving from his hair and running across his shoulders, down his chest. “I want you to do that too.”

 

He hesitated, but the talk and the fact that she was no longer all he could feel and think of meant the rest of the world was sinking in, and he became again dimly aware he had her pinned against the door in her parents’ house. His cheeks coloured very slightly, and he went to draw back. “Well, we should…”

 

“My parents are out.” Her hand shot out with certainty and a little need to grab his wrist as she said this, stopping him from moving away. “Until late.”

 

Silence fell between them as their eyes met, and the look of her was a hope and a promise and a dream. Moments passed before Tobias drew a deep, careful breath, and just about dared to whisper without fear of breaking the moment. “Late?”

 

She didn’t say anything in reply, just nodded, looking up at him and chewing slightly on her lower lip. He didn’t pull her to him in another kiss right away, either, despite the singing in his ears and the intense awareness of the silence around them, the wonder of the novelty that was absolute privacy.

 

They had stolen what moments they could at Hogwarts. In summer they might have gone for walks along the lake and found what isolated patch of trees they might, but winter was an altogether less secure matter. Empty classrooms might be found, but they held their risk, and even abuse of a Head Boy’s power granted only so much freedom.

 

So it had been fumbles down by the Herbology greenhouses, or frantically making the most of their time in an abandoned room, where they’d been paying as much attention to not being caught as to each other. The moments had been snatches of desperation, grabbed and not savoured.

 

This was different. Now, he could lean forward to kiss her slowly, lingeringly, with all of the intensity he always wanted to savour but never had the privacy or time to indulge. And did, his hands snaking around her and pulling her close, her hands entwining even more fiercely in his hair.

 

Time lost all meaning. And place, as they somehow transported themselves from the kitchen to a bedroom, and he wasn’t kissing her up against the door, he was kissing her in a bed, with limbs entangled and clothes by some means lost and none of it mattered because all he knew was her, the feel of her, the taste of her, the sheer intimacy of flesh on flesh and knowing every, every inch of her.

 

Annie. Who might have caused him heartache and grief but had always been up front, always been honest. With whom he’d never needed to dance around, never needed to pretend to feel anything but what he did, who had never been afraid of her emotions. What was hurting him in one moment of weakness compared to years of denial and blame?

 

And she was here. Perfect. His. Wanting him.

 

They’d never really talked about the physicality of their relationship. And perhaps leaping in to the abyss together with such little forethought and so much reliance on instinct over consideration was not the wisest of actions. But it felt right.

 

What were the euphemisms? That the world had moved, that he was a man now, all of that. None of it was true, so far as he could tell afterwards, even with his head swimming and absolute peace sneaking upon him. He was no different now, no different a person, no different in thought and in feeling…

 

Just different in experiences. And this was one experience, one moment, Tobias thought as he lay in bed with her nestled up against him, he wished could last forever.

Chapter 24: The Dark Side of the Moon
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Chapter 23: The Dark Side of the Moon


 

Music pumped from the wizarding wireless in the corner, loud and thumping and filling the entirety of Theron Howlett's house. With its wooden beams and large, echoing corners, the sound reverberated well, thrust a party atmosphere into every seam, but any new arrival not yet intoxicated by the sensations would doubtless just peer in confusion at this old, rambling farm house in the far reaches of the west country thrumming with such young and modern life.

 

Where Howlett's parents were, only a handful of people present knew. And none of them cared, so long as that location was 'not here'. It didn't matter. It couldn't matter. Now was the time for youth, and escape, and whatever rebellion they could feasibly get away with.

 

Tanith Cole had to concede it was somewhat suburban rebellion, so to speak, but it meant for a fairly decent party. Howlett was the consummate host, greeting anyone and everyone who arrived with such jubilation that it was as if he thought them all lifelong friends. For an entirely false demonstration, it was still successful in making everyone feel welcome, and Tanith could not deny that there was something infectious about the Quidditch captain's charisma.

 

At the very least, it was making people a lot more friendly than she'd expected. And though, through judicious assessment of the slightly cool attitudes towards her, she was sticking by Ariane and Melanie, she had yet to be hurled out by her ankles. This was quite an achievement, for a Slytherin.

 

What was more of an achievement was the one person in the room she couldn't take her eyes off. Tobias was moving effortlessly through the crowd with all of the grace of a consummate politician, overshadowing even the hostly Howlett himself. With Annie beside him, he seemed intent on having at least one conversation with everyone there, and the astounding thing was that everyone seemed happy to drop what they were doing and have a short, cheerful chat with the Head Boy.

 

This wasn't what was triggering her gut to twist unpleasantly. What caused that was the continuous, almost sneaky sideways glances he and Annie would exchange, and the way their faces would light up in such stolen moments. The way they, away from the expected restraint in public at Hogwarts, couldn't but continue to cling to each other was enough to make her want to look away. But it was like staring into the sun; blinding and painful, but holding on to something absolutely vital, absolutely impossible to live without.

 

"Stop it." Ariane pushed a fresh drink into her hand, which she peered at owlishly for a moment, a little stunned by the interruption. "Drink up, chin chin."

 

"What is it?" Tanith dubiously eyed the table of drinks in the corner of the front room. Everyone had brought a little something, and pooled their resources for a truly monstrous tower of potential inebriation. Diana Sawyer and Percival Anderson had commandeered the corner, putting together excellent but terrifying concoctions into various beakers, passing them to whoever strayed too close. To call what she held a 'cocktail' was an affront to anyone who had any concept of mixing or owned taste buds, but it did the job in a vibrant party like this.

 

"I don't know. I think there's gin in it. Which is likely to make you rather doleful when drunk, so I'd better make sure I'm not there to see it," Ariane said dryly, peering at her own beaker. "Perhaps not able to see when it happens."

 

"You do know how to handle a classy party, Ariane," Melanie pointed out with a snigger, taking a swig from her own cup.

 

"We must work with what we are given," Ariane said haughtily, but there was an unusual flash of self-awareness in the small smile she gleamed at them. "And for now, we should find a different room."

 

"Any particular reason?" Melanie lifted her head.

 

Ariane grabbed Tanith by the arm with surprising speed just as she opened her mouth to protest. "To get Tanith here out of the danger zone. It's starting to get embarrassing, the way she's gawking at Grey."

 

Tanith's lip curled as she was frog-marched into the equally busy, but Tobias-free kitchen. Aurora Jameson was sitting on the aga, evidently drunk already, head swaying completely out of time with the music. To everyone else chatting in here, this seemed normal.

 

"Can you not," she said through gritted teeth, "drag me about like a doll, or talk about me like I'm not there? And if it's so inconveniencing for you, then you don't have to..."

 

"Oh, but we do, dear." Ariane gave another brilliant smile. "You're one of us. We cannot have you suffer alone."

 

"I'm not suffering. I'm getting on with it," Tanith said, giving them both a firm look as they settled to lean against one of the spare spaces on the kitchen counter. "I just hadn't been prepared for... a party. With confined spaces. And all of that."

 

"No, no, of course not. And you're doing well," Ariane said reassuringly.

 

"Like chasing Miles." Melanie nodded.

 

Ariane gave her a slightly cold look. "I was going to say that... yourself and Miles... is a sensible next step. Albeit a slightly dangerous one. At least, in its current... form."

 

"That being undefined," Melanie added helpfully.

 

That's because it's so far only consisted of snogging him outside of sight. Bugger knows how that's got out, though, unless either Miles or Gabriel is being an indiscreet little bastard... Tanith frowned as she looked between her only two friends who, at the moment, she could talk to without getting either a boy's complete obliviousness or a desire to throw herself off a cliff. "It doesn't need definition..."

 

"It doesn't do your reputation much good, dear, for this to just be seen as a... fling." Ariane looked like she thought she was being kind as she patted Tanith on the elbow. "It makes you look... desperate."

 

Tanith straightened up. "Desperate."

 

"Yeah. You know. Like you can't get the guy you want, so you're taking the guy you can get?" Melanie smiled. At least she had the decency, Tanith thought, to look like she realised just how antagonistic she was being.

 

"Thank you, Larkin, because I couldn't figure out what the word meant without the assistance of your scintillating insight," she replied dryly, glaring at the other girl.

 

"Well, Miles is here," Ariane said, ignoring the snide commentary and delivering this news as if it was gracious of her to share such a secret. Which Tanith already knew. "So perhaps you could talk to him. And if it needs to be said only in private... I believe he, too, has an empty house tonight."

 

"You remain as subtle as a brick, Ariane," Tanith pointed out dryly. "I did not ask for your advice -"

 

"But you did ask for our company, tonight, so you didn't do anything foolish." Melanie pointed this out with a shrug. "The advice comes for free. Lucky you."

 

"...lucky me, indeed. Bollocks to this." Tanith pushed herself upright and drained her beaker, though it had still been half-full. Or empty, depending on how much their attitudes were aggravating her. "Hey, look, I finished my drink. I'm going to get another one."

 

"What..." Ariane didn't get a chance to phrase her objection or confusion before Tanith was off, weaving her way through the crowd and headed for the door. Overhearing Melanie confident, smugly declare "She'll be back," served only to add speed to her gait. She wasn't sure where she was going, but anywhere had to be better than that conversation.

 

The thought had barely escaped into the echoes of her mind before she rounded the corner leading to the living room, just in time to walk almost flat into Annie MacKenzie. She staggered a little, obviously not expecting this, but Tanith took a quick step back and regained her balance with a speed which would have impressed Ritter. Especially with whatever was in that cocktail beginning to work its merry way in to her system.

 

"Oh, C- Tanith." Annie leaned heavily against the wall. There was a long, awkward silence as the two peered at each other. "Small world."

 

"...not when we're sitting in the same house, Mac- Annie." Tanith just about managed to keep her voice teasing rather than full of the venom that threatened to bubble up at the sight of her. Gryffind-whore. "Makes running in to each other somewhat likely."

 

"Indeed." Annie straightened up. "Just as well, really, as I was looking for you. Got orders."

 

Tanith peered. "Orders?"

 

"Ah, Cole, there you are! Your drink's broken. Let's go see to that. You too, Mac."

 

For the second time, Tanith found herself grabbed and practically dragged off across the house, this time by the arrival of the sudden, jocular whirlwind that was Nathalie Lockett. Mildly more heartening still was that, though Annie followed in their wake, she didn't look particularly pleased by the prospect, and before she knew it Tanith had a beaker of something entirely different shoved in her hands by a beaming Ravenclaw.

 

"So, as I was saying to Mac," Lockett said, helping herself to a drink and waving another one at Annie.

 

"When did I start being a 'Mac'? No, thank you, I've had... quite enough." Annie shook her head at the proffered cocktail.

 

Lockett looked down at the two beakers in her hands, then shrugged, nodding towards a corner of comfy cushions and space to sit, which they ambled towards. "It's catchy, and completely not my fault, I'm certain." She practically threw herself down on to an overstuffed cushion, somehow managing to not spill a drop of either drink.

 

"I'm sure," Tanith muttered, almost at the exact same time as Annie did the same, and the two girls eyed each other warily as they, too, perched on the seating.

 

"...as I was saying to Mac," Lockett tried again, pausing to take a gulp of her drink, "None of us have really spoken before. We should fix that."

 

Tanith peered at her. "We should?"

 

Lockett waggled a finger. "I know you've got this whole ice-queen thing going on, Cole, and awesome as that is, it's not fooling me. You are friends with Cal and Toby. Mac here is obviously somewhat significant to Toby, and I think I'm getting kind of fond of that big lug Cal." She gave a wry, playful smile, which Tanith, despite herself, found a little infectious. "So it might not be a bad idea if we could all get along."

 

Annie gave a small, but not unamused sniff. "That's a frighteningly healthy way of looking at things."

 

"Or we could sit around and hiss and get territorial at each other, like you two have. But that's just not fun for anyone. Even you," Lockett pointed out.

 

Tanith rubbed the back of her neck uncomfortably. "Not... territorial..." Her voice trailed off as she realised that, defensive or not, she didn't want to say what her actual problem was.

 

Annie was shifting with similar discomfort. "It's not a problem. Not an insurmountable one, anyway. Just..." She stopped, then looked up sharply to meet Lockett's gaze. "What is going on with you and Cal, anyway?"

 

Tanith breathed a silent sigh of relief at the change in focus. She would have never thought that Annie MacKenzie might save her from a tight spot; even if it was a tight spot they'd happened to be sharing at that exact moment.

 

Lockett looked between them. "We're... friends," she said at last.

 

"That's an awfully evasive answer," Tanith muttered into her drink. This one appeared to have vodka, rather than gin as the main intoxicant. Such a lovely mixture of alcohol could only mean that if she indulged much more she wouldn't remember this evening. If she was lucky.

 

"And, I don't think, entirely true." Annie smirked at Lockett, who was still looking between the two of them with a glint in her eye that Tanith didn't particularly trust.

 

"Oh, really? What makes you think that?"

 

"The amount of time you spend together..." Annie began to count off on her fingers.

 

"The way Cal seems to trip over words and sense at the sight of you..."

 

"Not that you don't go a bit red whenever you see him..."

 

"...and talk faster..." Tanith stopped as the two of them seemed to run out of arguments to bounce off each other, and noticed the glint in Lockett's eye shining even more. She suppressed a scowl, hiding it behind another gulp of her drink. She's making us try to get on. The conniving little bitch. I bet Cal put her up to this...

 

...but even more damningly, it's working.

 

"Well, when you put it like that..." Lockett didn't even pretend that this victory had been hard-won by them. "There might be a... thing."

 

"Of the snogging variety, or are we talking a little more than fumbles behind the herbology greenhouses?" Tanith fought, and succeeded, in keeping a straight face at this, and was rewarded with a small flicker from Annie's expression.

 

"Of the... maybe would like to." Lockett shrugged. There was a hint of reddening about her cheeks, and she ran a hand a little self-consciously through her short, pixie-like hair.

 

Tanith leaned back, taking pity on the girl who obviously meant well and seemed utterly immune to being disliked. "This is a party. There is merriment, and perhaps a little... what's the phrase Cal would use? Dutch courage. It's always worth a try. What's the worst that could happen?"

 

You don't love me, you can’t love me...

 

"He could laugh. Then everyone else in the room could start laughing. Then all teachers at Hogwarts could suddenly appear and they could laugh, too, and I could fail my exams, and then, I’d be naked.” Lockett paused, expression twisting with the hint of a confession. “Alright. So that was a nightmare I once had. But it could happen.” She pointed a finger at them. Pointedly.

 

Tanith and Annie exchanged glances. “Vivid imagination you’ve got there, Lockett,” Tanith said dryly.

 

“Trust a Ravenclaw to include failing their exams in the middle of a nightmare scenario,” Annie agreed.

 

“What would be the Gryffindor equivalent?” Tanith wondered aloud. “There’d be no pit of lava to throw one’s self into without thought or reason?”

 

“Probably. And what’s the Slytherin version? Everyone realises all of a sudden that you’re not actually a heinous bitch queen from hell?” Annie countered.

 

Tanith straightened up, instinct demanding she respond to that with something cutting, something about Gryffindor stupidity… or perhaps more witty than that… but by the time she’d realised she’d paused far too long for a response, she noticed the slight smile on Annie’s face, realised there’d been a gently mocking tone in the voice, and came to the conclusion that it had been… not an attack, but a joke.

 

That was new. And unwelcome.

 

“Still,” she said, with less smoothness than she’d like, looking back at Lockett. “It’s not likely to happen.”

 

Lockett tilted her head with another one of those slightly satisfied smirks of hers. “I didn't realise my love life was all that exciting."

 

"You're the one insisting we sit here and talk," Annie said with a grin. "So let's talk."

 

The shift in emphasis in the conversation was like Lockett had been a mouse chased by a cat, only to suddenly transform into a large dog, so quickly were the tables abruptly turned. "Alright. You and Toby."

 

Tanith took a large gulp from her beaker.

 

"What about us?" Annie smiled sweetly, though Tanith's trained eye caught the small hint of a flicker of pure glee that made her stomach twist unpleasantly.

 

"Golden couple of Hogwarts, uniting the houses, yadda yadda yadda." Lockett waved a hand dismissively, still wearing a smirk.

 

"Your point?"

 

"My point is I could make some awful jokes about 'Head Boy', but I'm sure this is a far too tasteful gathering for such filth..."

 

Tanith almost choked on her drink - then actually did as Annie turned bright red in a most telling manner. For the first time she silently cursed, and cursed, and cursed her tutor for teaching her to read people. Occasionally, you didn't like the material.

 

"You didn't!" she declared before she could stop herself, throat burning with alcohol and only barely managing to use that to make her voice sound hoarse rather than reflective of the sick, heavy sensation in her ribcage.

 

Annie blinked at her owlishly in a passable imitation of innocence, confusion, and evasion to cover up the obvious happy embarrassment. "Didn't what?"

 

Tanith might have left it at that, with a preference of uncertainty driving her batty to certainty driving her absolutely mad - but by now Lockett had picked up on this, draining one of her beakers and leaning forwards. "Oooh. You didn't."

 

"I..." Annie looked between them, gaze especially wary of Tanith - whose mask of haughty indifference was pretty much intact by now - before she gave small, girlish giggle and turned bright red. "Maybe we did. Maybe there was a free house yesterday…”

 

Tanith gulped down her drink in one go. She wouldn't, if asked later, be able to remember one more second of that conversation, as it just passed by in something of a numb blur, dulling her senses. She would recall that she sat calmly and coherently, wearing a mask of polite joviality and even engaging in further conversation - once this particular topic had been dropped. Her lessons, which had served to get her into this situation, remained steady enough in getting her out.

 

Then before she knew it she was ambling away from the drinks table, her mind buzzing as if she had drunk more than two beakers of this cocktail, winding her way through the crowd. She had seen Miles heading for the kitchen some ten minutes earlier, so if he wasn't in there he might have made for the fresh air - particularly fresh this time of year - in the back garden.

 

"Tanith!"

 

She paused in the suddenly empty corridor as Tobias' voice reached her ears, then turned slowly to face him. Just laying eyes on him right then was like a kick to the gut, and it was all she could do to suppress the images of them together that rose in her mind and attempt a small, but epically distant smile.

 

Her lips upon his, limbs entangled, hands running through his hair...

 

She blinked hard. "Grey."

 

Tobias walked towards her slowly, cautiously, looking like he might bolt at any moment. "I didn't think I'd catch you tonight on your own, but... I'm glad I did."

 

"Oh?" She tilted her head curiously. Because that was a good means of showing interest, even though her body seemed to feel colder at his approach.

 

"We need to talk. About the argument." Tobias wrung his hands together uncertainly. "I mean... I don't mean we have to go over it. But I shouldn't have... reacted the way I did. And we should talk."

 

"What's there to talk about? I thought you were rather clear." Her voice was dull and empty despite her best efforts. Somewhere over Tobias' shoulder, back in the living room, she spotted a Lockett-shaped blur throw itself at Cal as if from nowhere and kiss him full on the lips. She couldn't even summon up happiness on someone else's behalf at how well-received this move was.

 

She looked back at Tobias. "And are you sure this is the best time?"

 

"We don't have to talk now," Tobias said a little frantically. "But we can talk about talking. I mean... open a dialogue." He gestured vaguely, and had she been more aware she'd have realised she hadn't seem him this outright nervous in quite some time.



Not since the Yule Ball, where you shot him down. How the tables have turned.

 

"Right. We'll schedule it in. 'Discuss subject better left buried'. We'll do lunch or something." Tanith turned away, voice still rather empty and dull.

 

"Tanith..." He reached out to grab her by the elbow, grip surprisingly firm, attempting to pull her back around.

 

There was a fresh twist in her gut yelling loud and clear at her that she only knew, pushed to her limit as it was, of two ways to respond to this. And the first was unthinkable.

 

Grab him by his shirt, pull yourself up close against him, kiss him until all sense goes and he pushes you against the wall...

 

She turned to face him sharply, yanking her arm out of his grip. "How is this helping?" she demanded instead, inwardly cursing as she felt the pinprick threat of tears welling up. "You think I have an easy time of seeing you with her as it is without you then playing nice? Why can't you just let me hate you?"

 

Tobias took a step back as if struck, staring at her. "I don't... want you to hate me..."

 

"Yeah? Well? Tough." Tanith also took a step back, though for her this was a move closer to the kitchen door. "So I suggest you just go off and fuck your little Gryffind-whore again to console yourself about how mean and horrible I've been in inconveniencing your perfect fucking life."

 

Then she was gone, storming through the crowds of the kitchen - all of whom knew better, however drunk they were, than to get in the way of Tanith Cole in a foul mood, and leaving Tobias absolutely speechless in her wake. Fortunately, the threat of tears had been an empty one, but she was still mostly unaware of her surroundings until she emerged out the back door of the house and into the farmyard, jerked somewhat back to reality by the cold winter air.

 

"Hey, Tanith."

 

She'd forgotten she'd been looking for Miles, and that this was why she'd been heading outside in the first place. His footsteps crunched on the gravel as he padded up next to her, gaze fixed in her direction, breath misting in the cold air. "Little chilly, isn't it?"

 

"I could say the same for you," she murmured quietly.

 

"I have a coat. I'm not crazy."

 

Tanith looked down, scowling as she realised he was right, and that she'd burst outside in the middle of winter, and that the chill was actually beginning to penetrate her shield of sheer hurt. She looked over at him, and again the image of kissing Tobias rose, unbidden, to her mind.

 

"I have a better idea than a coat to keep me warm," she said at last, swallowing hard.

 

Miles smirked and raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really?"

 

She didn't bother to reply, just stepped in, grabbed him by the front of his coat and kissed him hungrily. For just a split second, the part of her mind which still writhed in pain attempted to layer over the sensations the images about Tobias, either as a part of a deception or perhaps to just ease her in.

 

But it was different. The smell of him was different, the feel of him was different, and it was with a fresh punch to the gut that she realised she had absolutely no point of direct comparison, but that she'd at least imagined Tobias was less greedy, pushing. He wasn't him. This was Miles Bletchley, and at that moment she was hanging on to him as if her life depended on it, hands sliding over his chest and letting him pin her against him in complete entrapment.

 

She wore absolutely no expression when she pulled back, still wrapped up in his grip. "Take me home, Miles."

 

Miles blinked at her, obviously surprised enough by her sudden leap on him as it was. "I don't know where -"

 

"I don't mean my home." She leaned forward to plant a light, lingering, and intended to be infinitely teasing kiss on his lips. He was a simple enough man that this would, surely, be enough to distract him from the trouble she was having summoning enthusiasm.

 

This wasn't about wanting. This was about needing.

 

"I... oh. Oh." Miles' expression lit back up then, before he pulled her to him for another kiss which lacked all of the gentleness and subtlety of her last.

 

There were so many ways in which he wasn't Tobias Grey. But that, in and of itself, was exactly what she needed right then.

Chapter 25: The Tables Turned
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Chapter 24: The Tables Turned


 

Christmas would come and go without much ceremony.

 

The Cole household's was a sombre affair, one of a distant family forced together despite disconnection and disinterest, where the warmest words exchanged through the dim cloud hanging over tended to refer to passing food across the dinner table.

 

The Greys' was quiet, an awareness of a family fractured, and thoughts of dark times unable to be kept at bay by two conscientious individuals, thus casting a shadow over the entire affair.

 

The house of Will Rayner and his ward was cheerful and pleasant - but eminently brief before reality sank back in, and routine would return, celebrations limited when a family was so small and practically-minded.

 

As for the Doyle household... well. Nobody was ever sure what happened in that family.

 

In fact, Tobias reflected as he surveyed his company in the Leaky Cauldron three days after Christmas Day, they almost never heard from Gabriel outside of Hogwarts. And with his increasingly distant attitude at school of late, knowing what was going on with him at all was next to impossible.

 

But even still, Gabriel was not at the forefront of his thoughts. Even his companions were out of his consideration, as Cal and Miles bickered over the quality of the pub's draught ales. Not even Annie, for as wondrous as their time together during the holidays had been, could quite rise to a position of utmost import. No, his thoughts were not quite so pleasantly focused.

 

"...bit quiet here, isn't it." Bletchley sniffed a little derisively as he glanced around the admittedly empty pub. "Usually a lot busier around Christmas. I'd guess."

 

"You'd think," Cal conceded with a shrug. "Still. Diagon Alley's dead, too. Loads of businesses have shut down. People don't want to come out of doors."

 

Indeed, the Leaky Cauldron did seem to be suffering from the state of the world. They had noticed most shops keeping business hours short even at Christmas, and the Cauldron looked like the only place a wizard could catch a drink this far south of Hogsmeade. Even then the clientele were a dour lot, the most determined of regulars or the most cautious of individuals. No families could be seen, no children. A few old bickering wizards sat in a corner; a group of off-duty ML Enforcers being boisterous clamoured around a table, obviously aware that, between the eight of them they could eat most trouble for dinner. Aside from that and a few confident opportunists making the most of low prices grabbing a quick drink, the place was quiet.

 

"What, in the million to one chance that when they go down the street the Death Eaters will kick off?" Miles said, and had Tobias been paying more attention he would have been quite upset at the notion of agreeing quite so thoroughly with such a man.

 

"Yeah. People aren't so fond of risking dying. Funny, that." Cal took a large gulp from his pint.

 

"They do know they're letting You-Know-Who win, though, right?" Miles shook his head. "Curling up and crying at the idea of a Death Eater?"

 

"While you, a wizard still not finished his education, would of course stand bravely before them." Cal rolled his eyes.

 

Miles gave him a look. "If I saw one?" he said. "Nah, I'd run a mile. But I'm not going to sit indoors just because there might be a Death Eater on the prowl ready to zap me."

 

"Don't know if that makes you brave or stupid." Cal shook his head as he sipped on his pint.

 

"Then why are you down here, hm?" Miles said a little imperiously.

 

Cal looked up from his drink, blinking. "I was thirsty."

 

"...and you're wondering if I'm stupid," Miles scoffed.

 

"I don't suppose either of you have spoken to Tanith." When Tobias interrupted, it was rather abruptly, and in the disconnected manner which suggested it made complete sense for his own train of thought, if not their conversation.

 

Miles raised an eyebrow at him. "Not since the day after the party, mate." There was something of a smirk hovering about his lips. "Why?"

 

Cal stiffened a little, eyeing Miles suspiciously, but this did not catch Tobias' notice. "She was just... er, a little displeased when we last spoke," he said carefully.

 

The smirk broadened. "She definitely wasn't last time we did."

 

"Miles-" Cal leaned forward, but the stewing Tobias' brain had done seemed to be denying him the power to observe the subtle.

 

"So she wasn't upset?" he asked obliviously.

 

"There wasn't any screaming and crying." Miles paused, then waggled his eyebrows. "Well. No crying, anyway."

 

Tobias opened his mouth to speak, then he saw the pointed look he was getting off Cal and his mind caught up with the situation. He blinked at Miles. "Wait. What?"

 

"I know, right?" Miles leaned back, cockily taking a gulp of his pint. "I didn't figure Tanith would be the type to wail like a banshee in bed, so I must have been doing something right."

 

Cal made a small, grumbling, slightly distressed noise in the back of his throat. "I didn't notice the two of you leaving the party together," he mumbled. If it was an effort to change the subject, it failed abjectly.

 

"Not surprised. You had Lockett. Grey had MacKenzie." Miles' smirk broadened, if that was possible. "Speaking of which, Grey, rumour has it that you got your end away with her. I'd ask you how she and Tanith compare, but of course you got shot down before you could get that -"

 

Looking back, Tobias wouldn’t be entirely sure what had happened, or even necessarily why. He did know he leapt out of his chair, knocking it over and rocking the table enough to spill their drinks. He did know that Cal was on his feet also, and so was Bletchley, but neither of them reacted fast enough to stop him from curling his hand into a fist and planting it inexpertly in Miles’ jaw.

 

Pain ran along his hand at the impact, for he’d never been shown how to throw a punch, but he was not alone in such a sensation as Bletchley reeled back, clutching at his face. But before either of them could continue, Tobias following this up at the urging of the red mist sinking over his vision, or Bletchley retaliating, Cal was in between them, shoving them apart before wrapping his arms around Tobias and dragging him back.

 

"You want to get us banned?" his friend hissed in his ear. "Not to mention I reckon he could take you, wands-away?" 'Wands-away' was the term they had coined an age ago, back in the days of their Gryffindor vendetta, for any contest - usually a brawl, and usually deferring to Cal for such matters - where magic was not employed. It tended to minimise punishment and maximise satisfaction.

 

Miles was laughing as he lowered his hand from his jaw, which looked like it would soon see a merry bruise but not much worse, though the inkling of other patrons were staring at them and his fists were clenched in readiness. "Oh, so it does piss you off I got there first. Well, isn't that just a bonus."

 

"Drop dead, you shit-stirrer," Cal snapped eloquently, though he tightened his grip as Tobias made another move forwards with a noise of aggravation at the back of his throat.

 

"After the suck-up does." Miles nodded at Tobias, relaxing as he saw Cal had him thoroughly restrained. "He didn't have to crawl back up Dumbledore's arse so enthusiastically when the old bastard was back in charge. You know what my keeping that prefect badge for seventh year would have looked like to potential employers?"

 

"That you still came second place to me for two years?" Tobias tugged at Cal's grip, lip curling. "Let me go, Cal, I'm not going to flatten him. Merlin, where did you learn a body-lock like that?"

 

Cal did, reluctantly, release him, though continued to eye him cautiously. "I was the one who had to scrap with McLaggen and Wilson at once while you and Doyle were useless or elsewhere." He rubbed his upper arms a little.

 

Tobias hadn't been listening for a response, still glaring at Miles. His fists clenched and unclenched, and he shifted his weight, seeming to be weighing matters up. Then he shook his head abruptly. "Just... just stay away from me, Bletchley,” he spat. “And her." Without waiting for a response, he whirled on his heel and strode for the door.

 

"If she can keep her hands off -" Miles' antagonistic response was cut off as Cal grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him back down into his chair.

 

"You're paying for those drinks, boyo," Cal declared firmly, but whether Miles subjected himself to this would remain unknown to Tobias, who by then had burst gratefully out of the door and into the back yard of the Leaky Cauldron.

 

Last time he had been there, his stomach had been flittering with anticipation. Now there was just an almost painful knot in his gut as he paced back and forth, trying to work the shake out of his hands and clear his head. Apparition when jittery was a bad notion.

 

She... with Miles... to get back at me? It was the only explanation that made sense in that whirling nonsense that was his thought process, this maelstrom of confusion and emotions, and damningly, it was the best one. Why else would she be interested in such a man? Was there anyone who would be better at incensing him so?

 

And just why was he incensed?

 

"It's a manipulation. That's why," he growled under his breath, reaching for his wand, closing his eyes and turning on the spot. Images rose before his mind, of a copse next to a field of winged horses; then the air rushed in around him, his guts twisted even more from an unsteady, emotional apparition, and when he opened his eyes he was there.

 

There was ice on the ground and he could see his breath in front of him, but he cared nothing for the picturesque scene of frozen, crystallised leaves in absolutely still woodland, or the disturbance he made as his feet crunched on solid grass, past the paddocks empty in winter, towards the great house of the Cole family.

 

It was customary for family and friends to use the back door, closer as it was to the best local apparition spot. Formal visitors would have to troop around to the front, but it was through a lack of caring than a sense of welcome that Tobias made his way towards the kitchen door.

 

His rap on the solid oak was firm and heavy, and enough to make his knuckles sting if he cared. It was dark now, though it had been light when he'd headed for the Leaky Cauldron, the earliness of the evening creeping up on him in this winter darker than most. It made it hard to peer through the slightly warped large panes of glass in the door, but it was obviously gloomy inside, with no signs of movement.

 

There was a long silence, long enough that he knocked again, this time with the side of his fist and thumping more politely than might be expected. Daedalus and Gaia Cole being out was not an oddity; that there would be no Tanith, no staff, or even no Altair Ritter was peculiar.

 

Eventually, though, there was a ripple of movement through the glass, then the door did swing open to show the Squib himself standing there, bundled up in a greatcoat against the chill of winter. He blinked as he saw Tobias.

 

"Mister Grey. How long have you been there?" His voice was cautiously polite.

 

"Longer than I would have liked." Tobias grimaced. "Is Tanith in?"

 

Ritter glanced over his shoulder, seeming briefly confused. "She is in the study, I believe. I was just getting ready to go out and did not hear the door. I apologise." He stepped outside, but pushed the door open to allow Tobias in.

 

He didn't spare more than a grunt and a nod in gratitude as he darted inside, leaving Ritter to close the door and grumble off on his way, doubtless to find a Portkey with his lack of ability to apparate.

 

The Cole residence was as musty and old as he remembered, though it had been some years since he had visited. Nevertheless, he recalled where the study was - recalled that it had a view of the back garden and was easily close enough to hear a knocking at the door - and made his way there promptly.

 

He barged in this time without bothering to knock, and immediately felt plush carpet under his feet and a warmth to make him regret his coat and scarf. The study was a room to escape to, and the moonlight glittered in through large windows, the estate's holdings stretching out beyond.

 

Tanith sat before a table in the centre of the room, peering at what looked like a crystal ball that he paid no attention to. She looked pale and worn and tired, but started as he entered and her expression twisted to irritation quickly enough.

 

"How did you get in?" she snapped.

 

"Back door." Tobias jerked a thumb behind him in an aggravated manner. "Where Ritter happened to come across me and let me in. Despite my knocking. Which you heard."

 

Tanith gave a small sniff, looking back down at the orb and waving a hand over it briefly. The faint babbling he could hear emanating, but wasn't listening to, diminished in volume. Not inaudible, but not intrusive. "I thought Altair would have figured I was ignoring it on purpose. Damn him."

 

"Yes, damn him for... for keeping me out? As you hide away?" Tobias went to fold his arms across his chest, then made a small noise of irritation at the heat and unbuttoned his coat.

 

"It's my own house, Grey. I can do what I like. Or, at least, I don't have to answer to you for it." Tanith paused, straightening up and arching an eyebrow at him. There were bags under her eyes, though, and her glare lacked its usual strength. "Though I don't recall having to answer to you for anything."

 

"Though I still have to answer to you? Still get your judgement and your anger about what I do in my own private time?" He stalked forwards, the uncomfortable twist in his gut now prompting anger in his uncertainty, and he silently willed her to fight back - to cease this quiet reproach.

 

Tanith dropped her gaze. "I was wrong. It doesn't matter." Her voice was quiet and dull, and had he been thinking more clearly he would have read more into her lack of fire.

 

"It does bloody matter if you're still at it, just switching tack!" Tobias threw his hands in the air in aggravation.

 

She looked up again, obviously confused. "Switching...?"

 

"I spoke to Miles. He was bragging." He folded his arms across his chest, glaring at her levelly.

 

There was a stiff pause, then Tanith stood slowly, body language very careful, very precise and controlled. "I don't believe," she began, her voice holding a suggestion of a shake, "that's any of your business."

 

"When you're screwing... around to mess with me? I think it is." He couldn't quite bring himself to spout the coarseness the sentence had begun with, adapting to fit. The anger by now was a swirling nausea, a sense of being sickened with himself more than her.

 

She looked sharply at him, and there was a split second where her eyes began to fill with tears, and the twist in his gut tightened to defuse the anger, make him immediately apologetic - make him want to reach out for her, soothe her, make it all better.

 

Hold her, tell her everything's going to be alright...

 

Then her gaze hardened, and the fire came with it.

 

"To mess with you," she echoed, voice cold, but the temperature rising every second. "You are... unbelievable. You are beyond arrogant, Grey. To think that it had to be all about you."

 

He took a step back, and was almost surprised he didn't fall with the unsteadiness of his legs as his anger and righteousness began to fade in the face of this change. "You... we argued..." Suddenly, his reason for being here seemed markedly less right, and again he was in the aftermath of the argument in the Hogwarts woodlands, lost and confused and despising himself…

 

"I was upset. I was angry. And not just about you. About me. It was about me, you idiot, feeling hurt and... and rejected, and..." Again, her voice quavered, and she began to pace irritably to cover it up, scowling - whether at him or her emotions, now, he wasn't sure. Then she paused, a look of something approaching horror tugging at her expression. "...and Miles was bragging?"

 

Tobias flinched in recollection, opening and closing the hand which threatened to swell. "I don't think he'll be doing it any more." He paused, expression growing harder. "In fact, I mean to make sure of it." The anger was almost gone now, and in its place a cold, seeping guilt, again infinitely familiar, from when she’d said… she’d said…

 

Tanith covered her face with her hands. "...he thinks there was anything worth bragging about?" Her voice was barely above a whisper, horrified and empty as ever.

 

His fists clenched fully at last, and he ignored the shot of pain running up his hand. "He didn't... he didn't hurt you, did he?" The idea hadn't occurred to him before. Of boisterous, stupid Miles doing something...

 

"Not intentionally." Tanith straightened up the moment these telling words were out of her mouth, and glared at him. By now, at least, he knew to recognise when she used anger, lashing out, as a defence mechanism. "And why do you care about any of this? I don't have Cal or Gabe knocking down my door because I dared look at a man..."

 

Silence fell as Tobias straightened up, expression one of something approaching confused shock. "I..." His voice trailed off again, and their gazes met - his stunned, hers hurt and cautious. Eventually, all he could manage to say was a weak, stumbling repeat of “He hurt you?”

 

She turned away abruptly, shoulders stiff, posture not giving away a single hint of weakness. He knew this control well, knew usually that it was time to stop prodding, stop trying to approach her and leave her be.

 

But he’d left her be for months now, and the bile of self-loathing in the back of his throat was a flavour he didn’t want to taste any more.

 

“I am… the worst friend in the world, aren’t I,” he whispered, his voice thick, and he saw her jerk a little, though she didn’t turn. “I’ve treated you so badly, and this is… it’s my fault, isn’t it, and…” Tobias lifted shaking hands to scrub his face. “I owe you so much better than this, for all the times you’ve stood by me…”

 

Tanith looked back, hair falling over the side of her face as almost a curtain to hide behind as she regarded him. “I’ve abandoned you plenty. Thrown your emotions in your face plenty,” she said, but her voice was guarded, uncertain.

 

“Not like this,” Tobias said firmly, taking a step forward and lowering his hands. “My God. I’m sorry. I’m so… I never wanted to hurt you, but I did, and I’m so, so sorry…”

 

"All south-east teams respond. Death Eater apparition traced to a 21 Granary Street, Redditch, Surrey. Believed Muggle attack in progress."

 

The voice emanating from the orb drifted through the gap between them, and Tobias turned with a start. "What's that?" he asked, his voice cold and strained.

 

Tanith shrugged, a little confused at the change in topic. "It's an Auror communication orb. I just... listen sometimes. Find out what's-"

 

"That's... actual Aurors talking?" The colour drained from Tobias's face, and he turned for the door, yanking it open immediately.

 

Tanith bounded across the room, grabbing him by the elbow. "What? What is it?"

 

"That's not a Muggle attack." Tobias took advantage of the break and explanation to wrap his scarf around his neck. "That's Annie's house." Then he ripped out of her grasp and tore down the corridor.

 

He heard her shouting his name, heard her calling for him to stop, but he didn't hesitate as he strode back the way he'd come, and she didn't follow.

 

His grip on his wand was firm as he burst out the back door, into the cool darkness of this winter evening, before he closed his eyes, concentrated, and thought of the house of a girl with a sparkling smile that made his heart soar he would do anything for.

Chapter 26: The Dying of the Light
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Chapter 25: The Dying of the Light


 

Tobias had never taken much to physical exercise. He had little interest in or talent for Quidditch, and the wizarding world had none of the interest of the Muggle world in being fit. Magic bypassed all sorts of physical boundaries, and magical medicine overcame the significant problems of an unhealthy lifestyle. It might have led to a culture of indulgence and magical reliance, but Tobias usually cared little for such a fact.

 

Until tonight. Tonight, where the cold winter air froze his lungs as he drew gasping breath after gasping breath, and his feet pounded on the road as he hurtled down the abandoned street in this sleepy south-eastern suburb. Not fast enough. Not by far. But he couldn't trust that the Aurors had not already lowered a Displacement Field on the area, if they knew of the attack in progress.

 

So he'd apparated a safe distance and was going in on foot, hurtling towards Annie's house... and moving, still, far too slowly. Though he had quickly studied a map in the past to plan previous apparitions, he didn't need to know the local area to find his destination. Not with the grim, ominous glow of the Dark Mark in the sky, perhaps two streets over.

 

He knew what it meant. Had seen it at the World Cup, in the recording of his father's death, had read about it in books. But never before had it instilled in him such a sense of dread which meant, for just a moment, he had to fight with his legs to stop them from carrying him in the opposite direction.

 

You're not a Gryffindor, but you're not a coward. She needs you.

 

He cast from his mind what he might find when he got to Annie's house, even as he turned a corner and on to the right street. So far there had been silence in the village, the area asleep or ignorant as to the significance. But here... here, he could hear the screams.

 

Light in the street came from more than lampposts and the glow of the skull in the sky. If the disturbance had originally been limited to just one house, it was not the case any more. One car had been flipped and now blazed merrily on fire; two men were ushering people away from it. One house looked as if it had been at the receiving end of a particularly vicious blasting curse - rubble littered the street, and he had to leap over a few fallen forms of Muggles. They were all dressed as if they had been warm indoors in a winter night, and had either been blasted out with the house or driven to the street and struck by debris.

 

Carnage reigned supreme, Muggles running away, or bundling into cars, or seeing to the injured. Most notable was how the scene did not appear to have spilled beyond the local area, and how there were no Muggle authorities present.

 

And the tall, masked, dark-cloaked figure hovering some ten feet in the air, occasionally, languidly, waving a wand at the scurrying shapes beneath him.

 

Death Eater's mask. Tobias paused a moment, half-lifting his wand, and then hesitated. He could try to engage a fully-trained Death Eater, or he could wait until the Aurors and Hit Wizards took him down, leave it to the professionals. And there was still no sign of Annie. Surely she wouldn't have just stood by and hidden, or ignored such a man?

 

His gut twisted as his eyes scanned the fallen Muggles, whatever part of his mind still working thankful he could be lost in a sea of panic and ignored by the Death Eater. But he saw no sign of Annie, either in the injured or those trying to help. His gaze flickered to her house. Her family. Something must have happened.

 

He bolted for the house, now ignorant of the fact that the Dark Mark hung directly above it. Dodging past a family huddling along the pavement away from the Death Eater, he vaulted the garden gate with an agility surprising even himself, and stormed to the front door.

 

Had he been paying more attention to the details, he'd have seen the door was ajar, and not put his shoulder to it while running full tilt. The door flew open on his impact and sent him sprawling in the hallway, skidding along the carpet, but even as he hit the floor his wand was in his hand. "Annie!"

 

All was silent in response to his desperate bellow for a long moment, his eyes slowly adjusting to the dark and his shoulder aching from the impact against door and floor. Then he became dimly aware of two figures standing in the living room, just about visible through the archway joining it to the hall.

 

"Run."

 

It was definitely Annie's voice, and the inflection impossible to ignore. But before he could twist upright and choose between fight or flight, one of the two silhouettes in the room waved a hand, a wand visible.

 

"Locomotor Mortis."

 

This voice was unfamiliar, but the sensation of every limb locking up, his whole body tingling in an almost painful manner, was far better known to him. From a distant woodland in Derbyshire, and shortly enough there was the familiar coppery taste in his mouth as he bit his tongue in sheer frustration and anger.

 

The Death Eater who had frozen him waved a hand languidly, and he was jerked upright by an invisible force, then pulled towards the figures he could make out a little better now.

 

There were more than two people in the room. Just only two were standing. On the sofa slumped two motionless forms he recognised as Annie's parents, expressions shocked, eyes wide and absolutely sightless. Had he been more ignorant, he might have thought them alive, but Avada Kedavra was notable for its complete lack of distinctive signs in death. Then by the fireplace was a prone and twisted shape of a teenaged boy, this one obviously much more broken by the end, who had to be Annie's brother. He’d only met him once.

 

Over the boy himself crouched Annie, tears streaming down her face, but her expression absolutely devoid of emotion as she stared between Tobias and the two Death Eaters.

 

They did not wear masks. And though Tobias had not recognised the voice or manner of the one who bound him, he did recognise the face as he drew nearer. Idaeus Robb.

 

Which means...

 

Indeed. Standing over Annie and the broken body of her brother, tall and burly and wearing a lopsided smile that might have been charming in other circumstances, stood the man whose face was seared into his dreams: Thanatos Brynmor.

 

"You," Tobias spat. Or tried to. With his jaw clenched down on his tongue, almost impossible to open, it came out as more of a gurgled growl, but it got the man's attention.

 

Brynmor turned at the noise, then actually laughed out loud at the sight. Behind him, Annie flinched, though her expression immediately deadened afterwards. Tobias could not see a hint of fear or pain, or even hope or courage in her face or in her eyes.

 

"And it's the golden boy himself!" Brynmor exclaimed, hands clapping together but grip on his wand not loosening at all. "My, this is a surprise."

 

Robb looked between them, one eyebrow arching. "You did say this would be teaching a lesson."

 

"But I didn't for a moment think he'd show up in person." Brynmor glanced over at Annie, giving another low chuckle. "You called for help while we weren't looking! You sly creature. Pity you just summoned a boy."

 

Annie's voice was absolutely steady as she very slowly stood up, not making any sudden movements. "I didn't call him. Let him go. Please." There was the slightest suggestion of a possible shake on the 'please'.

 

"Oh, the self-sacrifice routine. Classic. Robb, let the boy talk, we'll see what he thinks?" Brynmor looked at his fellow.

 

Robb rolled his eyes. "Are these theatrics really - oh, fine." He reached over to pluck Tobias' wand out of his hand, then waved his own and sent the boy sprawling to the floor, landing heavily.

 

Tobias sucked in a deep, shaky breath as he had control over his aching limbs again, rising onto his forearms. "You bastards," he hissed. "If you hurt her..."

 

"You'll do absolutely nothing, just as you did absolutely nothing as we killed her family and waged devastation in the streets of the unclean." Robb's response was cold and taut and entirely unamused, and he glanced at Brynmor. "Aurors will be here soon enough. We do not have time to idle."

 

Brynmor folded his arms across his chest. "We agreed I could see to my business during this, Robb."

 

"Your business did not include interruptions. Just kill them both and be done with it. Or I will."

 

The burlier Death Eater took a step forward as Robb's wand drifted towards Tobias again. "Not him first. Him I want to punish. Him I want to teach a lesson."

 

"Lessons don't prevail after death, Thanatos." But Robb rolled his eyes and stepped back regardless with a deep sigh.

 

"Then I'll just be certain that I teach him one which he'll remember for the rest of his life." Brynmor gave a broad, toothy smile which, in the dim lighting, Tobias couldn't help but see as a dark, twisted version of his own son's pleased grin.

 

"A lesson." Tobias spat a mouthful of blood as he drew a deep breath and struggled to a kneeling position. "What, for daring to stand up to you, you psychopath?"

 

"For that. But I would also send a message. A message to those who would put a half-breed in power, and celebrate such a mingling of purity and corruption that is you - and by consequence, your rutting with a filthy Muggle." Brynmor waved a hand irritably at Annie, and though his lips didn't move there had to have been some spell, for she fell to her knees with a pained gasp.

 

Robb made another small, aggravated noise. "Brynmor, we don't have time for pontificating."

 

Brynmor ignored him, advancing on Tobias. "War is won in hearts and in minds, and so we make that our battleground. We fight for the future. I would not have our future, our youth, corrupted in thought by following you. So we shall set an example. An example of the right way!"

 

"Brynmor!" Robb sounded definitely annoyed by now. "This is getting quite tiresome!"

 

The burlier Death Eater looked sharply at him this time. "All will cower, Robb. None shall dare spread their filth, lest the Dark Lord's wrath fall down upon them. And I am that wrath. Let them know this."

 

"Rather difficult when all witnesses are dead. Not that I endorse their staying alive." Robb fell silent for a long moment, and the two Death Eaters glared at each other, their joint aggravation cutting through the gloom like a knife. For a long moment, all that could be heard was Annie's sobbing for breath.

 

"I tire of this," Robb said at last, glancing over at Tobias' writhing form, and at the weakened shape of Annie. "Enough is enough."

 

He must have said the words, uttered the incantation as he waved his wand. But Tobias didn't hear it. Just a dim ringing in his ears, and it was as if he'd been punched in the gut by Cal himself as a green light flashed in the air, and Annie fell to the floor like a lifeless doll, flopping over the corpse of her brother.

 

Tobias fell forwards onto his knees again, gaze now locked on her glassy eyes which stared right through him. The ringing in his ears slowly subsided, allowing him to become dimly aware of someone screaming. It took a few seconds, and the hoarseness in his throat, before he realised it was him.

 

Brynmor backhanded him across the face, cutting him off and sending him sprawling onto his back, writhing weakly. Then the Death Eater turned on his companion. "I wasn't done yet!"

 

"We don't have time. Finish the whelp and let's go." Robb seemed utterly unconcerned by the brutal, thoughtless murder he had just committed.

 

"I wanted to make it last!" Brynmor protested. "I wanted to make him watch."

 

"You killed her brother slowly. I thought that would appease your deranged tendencies for one evening." Robb rolled his eyes, arms folded across his chest. "Just kill the boy, and we shall depart." His gaze flickered towards the broken window. Most of the carnage outside was hidden from view by a high hedge, but fires still flickered beyond, and the wailing of Muggles could be heard. "...though it looks like we'll have to find Sneddon if he's gone Muggle-hunting."

 

Tobias crawled to his knees, only faintly aware of the hot, angry tears streaming down his cheeks, and the blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth. "You sons of bitches," he mumbled. "Why her? Why her?"

 

Robb and Brynmor exchanged glances, then Brynmor did that horrible, perverse twist of a smile again. "We had word. Of a half-breed Head Boy, of his Mudblood mate. Of how damn... popular you are. Lauded. And we knew we couldn't stand for it."

 

Tobias fought to draw a deep, gasping breath. "...'word'? Who cared about... we never went near you and your deranged crusade..."

 

Brynmor laughed, and a shiver ran up Tobias' spine in what felt like the first sensation that wasn't pain in a long time. "I'll give you this one for free. Look to your own home. Your own... house. My son knows where his true loyalties are."

 

Tobias looked up sharply, his vision exploding before his eyes from a mixture of the blow to his head and pure shock. "...Cal?" He spat out another mouthful of blood, voice hoarse.

 

"He knows the truth of the world. The truth of the Dark Lord. Right and wrong. And so he... told us all." Brynmor laughed again as Tobias' expression crumpled, and stepped forward to grab him by the lapels of his coat. "And you didn't know?" His rhetorical question came in a shout, amused and deliriously happy at the obvious shock this revelation brought with it. "Your best friend, and you didn't know he wasn't your man?"

 

He threw Tobias back down on the floor, stepping back and still chuckling to himself as he turned to peer out the window. "There. For that look on his face. That's worth it. Now we can kill him, Idaeus."

 

Robb rolled his eyes. "So courteous of you. Next time, I'm picking the target," he drawled, turning to Tobias with his wand outstretched.

 

They must have thought him beaten. And with Brynmor peering out the window and Robb obviously not expecting a threat, it was the best time to act. The tension in his limbs that had paralysed him coiled into strength, and, willing it into action, Tobias threw himself forwards at Robb, grasping at his wand.

 

Wands are tools. Wands are weapons. Wands are a wizard's life.

 

Wands are also notoriously fragile when snatched at. Which was what Tobias had counted on.

 

He might have won with his opponent’s wand broken, as he drove his shoulder into Robb's mid-riff with little ceremony or skill but the blunt force of sheer bloody-mindedness and desperation. As Robb staggered back, he might have had a chance to run, might have had a chance to get away, the Death Eater unarmed and powerless to stop him.

 

If it had just been the two of them. If Thanatos Brynmor hadn't stepped forwards and dropped him with just one, powerful blow to the temple.

 

Tobias went flying, smashing his chin on the floor as he landed in front of the fireplace and almost biting his tongue in half. The world spun before him, bringing nausea out through the numbness in his guts, and the strength he had borrowed ebbed away.

 

Robb staggered forwards, angrily throwing aside the two snapped parts of his wand. "You little bastard!" he barked. "I was going to kill you quickly, keep you from Brynmor's tender mercies..."

 

Brynmor gave a low chuckle, still seeming amused. "So can I enjoy myself now?"

 

His counterpart shook his head, hair now wild, and he reached for where he had pocketed Tobias' own wand. "The wand of another wizard," he said slowly, very suddenly seeming to turn just as calm as he'd been furious, "is less effective than one's own. Except for a theory I have read of... saying that a spell cast from a wand turned upon the wand's owner is even more potent." Robb tilted his head almost curiously at Tobias. "Shall we find out?"

 

The Cruciatus curse has often been considered the least of the Unforgivables. Death is to be feared, wizards believe - and they would mostly prefer to have their bodies harmed than their minds overruled by Imperius. But whilst these perspectives may be quite accurate and thoughtful, they sell short the curse designed and developed for one simple purpose: to cause perfect agony.

 

The yell Tobias had let out upon Annie's death was nothing compared to the echoing scream of pain torn out of his lungs as every single inch of him was racked with an exquisite agony. So intense was it that the numbness of fear, of loss, of despair - the emotional shutdown, a defence manoeuvre from the pain, was overruled, bringing all of it to the forefront. A mental agony to join with the physical.

 

His hand smashed against the mantelpiece as he writhed in agony, and had he been more aware he might have realised the impact was so hard he broke fingers - but even that seemed irrelevant, and even minor compared to the Cruciatus spell Robb had turned upon him.

 

He did not realise when it stopped. Every inch of him ached, a deep, throbbing pain which thumped through him with each heartbeat, every muscle spasm. And as he blinked muggily to peer at the two shapes over him, Brynmor's hand on Robb's forearm, he slowly - ever so slowly - realised this was an interruption, not a merciful respite.

 

His hearing slowly swam back to his ears for Brynmor's low, urgent tones to reach him. "...can't see Sneddon. They've got to be close. We should go."

 

Robb lifted his hand abruptly, wand snapping up. His expression had been twisted with furious satisfaction, but immediately his composure returned. No more was he the vicious man who acted while Brynmor laughed, but instead the calmer one holding Brynmor's leash. "Very well. Let us finish this." He nodded stiffly at Tobias. "Stand up."

 

Tobias opened his mouth to spit something vicious, but instead just a dull groan escaped.

 

"Stand." There was no pity in Robb's voice, but there was a definite edge beyond either hatred or cold disinterest that Tobias could not quite place. "I would have you die on your feet."

 

Reluctantly, and with every joint screaming in protest, Tobias struggled upright. "You won't win, you know," he mumbled, voice thick and words almost indecipherable. "Your Dark Lord will fall."

 

Robb exchanged a rather knowing glance with Brynmor, then regarded Tobias for a long moment. "They always say that." If anything, his tone now held a hint of pity, and he spoke more gently than Tobias had yet heard.

 

Then he lifted his wand, opening his mouth to speak - and all Tobias knew next was a high-pitched ringing noise, a solid impact on his chest, a flash of green light...

 

...then nothing.

Chapter 27: The End of All Things
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Chapter 26: The End of All Things


 

"Toby, wait! Don't be an idiot!"

 

Tanith's voice echoed down the corridors of the Cole estate even as Tobias disappeared around the corner, ineffective and unanswered. She leaned heavily on the doorway for a few long moments, waiting and hoping and trying to gather tired strength, before finally her shoulders slumped.

 

He's gone. Like a fool. To face Death Eaters. She drew a deep, shaking breath, still willing steadiness to her shaking limbs. And they'll kill him.

 

The thought sent a jolt through her, a charge which surged away any fatigue - though the price was a thump in her heart and the far-too-familiar taste of fear in her mouth. She straightened up, jaw clenching.

 

Not if I have anything to say about it.

 

She marched back into the study, peering briefly at the communication orb. But it hummed only with reports of Auror movement back to London, the gathering before a scramble to Surrey. That would take minutes; if Tobias was already gone, he might not have that long. So she strode past it, to the fireplace, and grabbed a fistful of Floo powder to throw in.

 

"Jacob Van Roden's office, MLE Department." And shoved her head in the green flames.

 

Though she had only the narrow band of vision available to her by Floo, and even that only really revealed the walls of Van Roden's cubicle, she could see hurrying figures flickering by the doorway and the sound of worry enough to suggest the Aurors were in something of a panic.

 

Then Van Roden appeared in front of her, crouching and looking rather confused. "Tanith? This really isn't the best time..." He ran a hand through his messy hair, and had she cared she'd have seen the bags under his eyes.

 

"This hit in Surrey. It's Tobias' girlfriend's house. Muggle-born. Tobias has gone there." The words tumbled out in a rush, and the fear faded a little once they were out. The Aurors. They would know what to do. They would make it better.

 

Van Roden raised an eyebrow. "How did you know about the..."

 

"I'll explain later, Jacob, but please, you have to send people in there to..."

 

"I don't send anyone! I'm barely qualified!" Van Roden sputtered briefly, and the taste of fear at the back of her throat resurfaced marginally. "They think it's Brynmor and Robb; they want to gather as much of a force as they can before going in!"

 

Brynmor and Robb. Fear the Dark Lord for his power, fear Lestrange for her viciousness. But they showed their faces rarely. For your common, everyday brutality and sheer efficiency in mayhem? Brynmor and Robb. The world feared Voldemort, but the foot soldiers feared them.

 

Her stomach clawed at her insides, making a valiant effort at joining the fear in her mouth. "Then he's as good as dead if you don't go soon!"

 

"It's not policy to send Aurors to their deaths!"

 

"But it's policy to leave people to die?"

 

Van Roden took a deep breath, looking like he was trying to calm himself. "Tobias ran into a hot zone on his own. I can't save him from his own foolishness."

 

"And everyone else the Death Eaters are targeting?" Tanith challenged. For the first time, she thought of Annie MacKenzie, of what had become of her. Of her family.

 

Then she stopped thinking about it. Quite determinedly.

 

"We save nobody by charging in and getting killed. Now, Tanith, best thing I can do to help is join in the..."

 

"Wait." Tanith closed her eyes briefly, drawing a deep breath. "Is the Displacement Aura in place?"

 

Van Roden frowned. "Of course."

 

"And the house disconnected from Floo?"

 

"We do follow policy. Look, I should..."

 

Another deep breath. "Can you reconnect it?"

 

He froze. "Are you insane? They'll get away!"

 

Tanith shook her head. "Not if it's policy to switch the Floo off. They won't even think to try. They know your tricks too well."

 

"Then what are you going to do?" Van Roden exclaimed. "Appear in front of Death Eaters in a confined space? You'll die before you can get your first spell off!"

 

"That's not my way in. It's my way out. I don't intend to go toe-to-toe with Brynmor and Robb." She leaned forwards a little, the image of the Auror cubicle becoming a bit clearer. "Please, Jacob. Or Tobias is as good as dead, and you know it."

 

Van Roden scowled, and she knew she had him. He never had any qualms about denying someone permission to do stupid things so long as the risk was only to themselves. It was a Darwinist approach to teaching. "If you die," he muttered, "then it'll be my neck."

 

"I'll just have to not die. Have you got a map of the area?"

 

He fished a piece of paper off his desk and passed it to her, mindful of the actual flames in the Floo'd fireplace. "X marks the spot. Don't try to apparate inside the ring." Van Roden lowered his head briefly, then sighed and met her gaze. "Good luck. And kick his arse for me for being so stupid."

 

"I'll make sure you can do it yourself." She gave him a wan smile, then pulled back - and suddenly she was in her living room again, clutching a road map of Redditch, Surrey. Blinking away the disconcertion that came from a Floo communication, she peered at the map, hand itching for her wand.

 

Not yet. Or you're as foolish as Tobias. Prepare. The mental reminder somehow took on Ritter's voice, and she quietly cursed that he had already left the house. He'd know what to do.

 

...but so did she. He'd taught her so she'd know what to do.

 

Unhesitatingly she bolted for the door, but this time her path took her upstairs, further into the house, and she made her way to Ritter's room. Just praying he'd left it behind.

 

His door was unlocked, and had matters been less dire as she burst in she'd have wanted to have taken more of a look around. Take more note of the spartan decoration, the utterly simplistic living habits. But all she cared about was the large, familiar trunk which was, indeed, nestled in a corner.

 

With a sigh of relief, Tanith hurried towards it, unconcerned by the heavy padlock keeping the lid down and pulling her wand out. "Alohomora."

 

But even as the flash of magic darted from her wand, it washed over and bounced off the padlock, glimmering in the way only magical defences could.

 

"...when did you enchant the bloody thing? And how?" she howled in frustration, looking around wildly. The wardrobe was shut, but looked small and probably held only clothes; the only other furniture was the bed and a small table holding papers and an envelope...

 

...an envelope with her name on it.

 

She lunged for it, aware of a small jingle of metal on contact and ripped the envelope open, expecting keys to fall in her hands.

 

What she instead got was a piece of paper folded over two thin lengths of bent metal. Peering at them in confusion, she opened the paper. "...learn a new trick," she read slowly, reality dawning.

 

Then she swore. Loudly. "Damn it, Altair, this is no time for a sodding lesson!" The two lock picks were hurled at the wall, hard, and her fists clenched, glaring at the padlocked trunk.

 

I need those devices. I can’t win this on my own. We'll both die. Think, Tanith. You don't know how to open it with lock picks. No keys. You can't force the lock with magic...

 

...force the lock...

 

Her wand struck out with a blasting curse, but not at the trunk. Instead it was carefully aimed at the table, and her aim was indeed accurate enough to rip the table leg away. She snatched up the length of wood as long as her arm and, grinning darkly to herself, muttered an incantation.

 

The lock would reject all direct magic. But she bet it wouldn't stand up to a crowbar. Even a Transfigured one. It was - she prayed - the kind of alternative thinking Ritter would have approved of.

 

Or - no, he wouldn't, she thought as she wedged the crowbar between padlock and trunk. He would want her to solve it with no magic at all. In that way of thinking, was he just as limited as the narrow-minded wizards he abhorred? Trapped within one way of thinking? Then again, she reasoned, bracing herself, he didn't have a choice. They did.

 

Then she yanked on the crowbar, hard. There was a moment of being frozen in exertion, of the tool straining against metal - and it gave way, sending her staggering back against the wall as the now broken padlock went rattling across the floor.

 

She didn't waste time celebrating her victory, just lunged to the trunk and opened it, pulling out all trays to display a veritable arsenal of magical toys and tricks. Toys and tricks which might just save her neck and, more importantly, Tobias'.

 

I'll need that. And one of those, and definitely one of those...

 

By the time she'd gathered all she needed, all that was left was to peer down at the map. Halfway down Granary Street was indeed a large 'X', at the epicentre of a circle across the local area. No guarantee where she'd end up if she tried apparating in. The Aurors would use Portkeys.

 

A park. Three streets down. "That will do," she mumbled, reaching for her wand.

 

The cool winter air hit her the moment she arrived, and she opened her eyes to a swing, a roundabout, and an abandoned park in the late hours of the evening. The frozen grass crunched underfoot as she looked around, breaking the silence of this utterly still, abandoned little corner of southern suburbia.

 

Then she turned around to see the Dark Mark hovering ominously in the sky some three streets down. There was no hesitation as she broke into a run.

 

Unbeknownst to her, she was finding the local area much the same as Tobias had only minutes before, if approaching from a different direction. The immediate neighbourhood seemed almost wilfully oblivious of what had to be taking place on Granary Street, enough that Tanith dimly wondered if the Dark Mark was masked from Muggle eyes. It would not surprise her.

 

When she turned a corner, she tripped over a body.

 

The pavement scraped skin off her hands as she caught herself landing heavily, and training kicked in for her to turn her momentum into a roll. Not as smooth as Ritter might approve of, it was something of a tumble to turn around, wand in hand, and see what had sent her sprawling.

 

The young man couldn't have been much older than her. He wore a t-shirt of some Muggle sports team, and so was obviously not dressed to be outdoors in this time of winter. That and his eyes were probably not meant to be wide open and still like that, head was probably not to be that shape, blood probably not meant to be seeping from where injury had been presumably done by the large chunk of masonry next to him.

 

Bile rose in Tanith's throat, and she rolled on to her front, fighting the urge to retch. This just brought her face to face with the remains of the house it looked like he had been blown free from. Sticking out the edge of the remains of a wall was a motionless hand. She didn't want to see what it was attached to.

 

Tobias. Before this happens to him.

 

Her legs shook for a second as she struggled to stand, drawing deep, uncertain breaths, and the next few steps were weak and stumbling. She swore quietly. "This won't do."

 

She fought, and won the battle, to steady her breathing, and with it came stability of her legs, letting her break in to a run again, down towards the end of the cul-de-sac. Now she could hear screaming, and the crackling of fires, and the tell-tale glow of flames mingling with the sky's green shimmer.

 

It was a circus of mayhem. Houses had been hit with blasting curses, set ablaze, seen the ground under them rise up. Some of the Muggles who had poured into the street from the devastation were running or helping the injured, but just as many were milling in absolute panic. A panic sustained by the dark robed figure in the centre of it all, the ringmaster of death.

 

No genius needed to figure this out. Robes. Mask. Death Eater. And not of a size to be the bulky Brynmor or the tall Robb. No, this was someone else.

 

Tanith kept to the side, difficult to notice in the chaos, and looked about sharply. The Dark Mark shimmered over one house in particular, a house mostly intact save broken windows and darkened interior. Number 21. Annie's house. Tobias must have gone there, must have slunk by the Death Eater. If the Dark Mark's locating was no coincidence, there were probably more inside. Probably Brynmor and Robb.

 

He'll die. Her mouth went dry and she took a step forward, though she stopped as a piercing shriek came lancing from behind her. Looking over quickly, she saw the Death Eater give a short laugh as he flicked a wand at a teenaged girl, sending her sprawling onto her front as she tried to run. And as she flailed desperately, dozens of cuts began to open on her skin, the screaming turning from purely terrified to also agonised.

 

Without thinking, Tanith was moving again, hurtling towards the Death Eater with wand outstretched. "Expelliarmus!"

 

He had to have been watching his surroundings for a magical interloper. And he was fast. Faster than he had any right to be when she'd appeared out of nowhere. Most importantly, faster than her.

 

A wordless protection spell deflected hers harmlessly, though it broke his concentration and the girl fell limp, the rending spell ceasing. The Death Eater straightened up, and turned to face her, expression unreadable beneath the mask.

 

Tanith managed to fight the shake in her hand, though her gaze did flicker briefly to the girl. "Run," she instructed curtly. "Now." She was only dimly aware of her crawling off as her attention then turned fully back on the Death Eater.

 

I’ll die.

 

The silence seemed endless, though it could have only lasted a few seconds. And when they acted, it was almost as one. "Stupef-"

 

Again a wordless casting from him, again a quicker reaction, a more conservative wave of the wand. And the spell he got off first was more than enough to interrupt as sharp pain seared across her chest as if an invisible knife had just slashed her.

 

With a yelp of pain she staggered back, clutching at her front and feeling a slow trickle of warm blood from the shallow but agonising wound. When the Death Eater waved his wand again, she didn't bother reacting with magic, and his next spell zipped harmlessly overhead as she threw herself behind a nearby overturned car.

 

Now she had scrapes along her elbows to match her hands, but that hardly seemed important as she still clutched at her chest. Her breathing was ragged as she fought to control the pain, stop it from overwhelming her thoughts and her physical control, but though Ritter had told her the theory of such issues, the practice was quite different.

 

She didn't have time to writhe. The Death Eater would be expecting one of two things - for her to emerge out and try again, or to cower. He was faster than her. He'd proven it twice. There was no way she could beat him in a quick-draw. She even doubted she would win if she took him by surprise when he came around the side of the car - which he would probably approach in the next five seconds if she didn't emerge.

 

"Do what he expects, you die," she mumbled under her breath, before nodding to herself and making a decision. "Then don't do what he expects."

 

She looked around wildly. There was no way she could fit under or inside the car, crushed by its impact against the ground as it was. No guarantee Aurors would be here soon enough to save her. The Death Eater had deflected every spell, every application of direct magic, and there was no way she could get close enough to try, for the first time ever, to physically disarm someone in earnest.

 

So she focused on the most obvious option, willed herself to not close her eyes in anticipation as she wanted to, and waved her wand.

 

The Death Eater's reflexes were as good as she'd anticipated, and he reacted with astonishing speed as the entire body of the car was magically catapulted at him. His spell to deflect it just about got off in time, sending the car flying through the air and into the remains of one of the ruined houses, the desperate wave of his wand and shout of his incantation showing how close he had been to failing.

 

And showing how he wasn't prepared for the immediate follow-up of a stunning spell to the chest from Tanith, her path clear with the car gone, her target distracted. The Death Eater was knocked back several paces at the arcane impact then fell to the floor stiffly. With a speed Tanith didn't know she had, the wand was kicked away from his hand and a muttered "Incarcero!" had the Death Eater bound hand and foot.

 

Only then did she stop. Only then did she realise just how ragged and desperate her breathing was, how much the slice across her midriff stung from the exertion. How much those of the crowd with the presence of mind to notice the fight had stopped what they were doing, and were staring at them both.

 

Her gaze scanned the assembled. The blind terror had subsided, but it had not been replaced with the gratitude she'd dimly expected. They stared at her, eyes wide, most displaying nothing more than sheer shock - but beneath it, and in the gaze of the quicker-witted, there lingered the slightest, smouldering hint of mistrust

 

So this is why we're isolated, she thought distantly. They're saved by magic and still they suspect it. Her attention landed on a group of young men who had been digging people out from under rubble. One still saw to an elderly man who had been injured; the other three were carefully picking up bricks and sticks and visibly arming themselves. She wasn't sure if their attention was on her, or on the prone Death Eater.

 

"Leave him alone. He's restrained. He's not a threat." She prayed she was right, though her voice miraculously held out, and didn't betray her fear. "And... and leave me alone."

 

They moved away quickly as she broke into a jog, heading towards Annie's house, heart in her mouth. The chaos out here had quietened down. If she was unlucky, they'd know in there that something had happened, be alerted to her arrival...

 

The front door was open, and she crept in ever so slowly, footsteps ever so light on the mercifully plush carpet. Not that she needed to be quiet, she realised once she was over the threshold. Not with all of the screaming.

 

There was something of an explosion of pain of realisation as it sank in that it was Tobias screaming, and she flattened herself against the hallway wall, next to the archway leading to the living room - and the Death Eaters. And Toby. Carefully, she lowered herself down to the floor and, from this less conspicuous spot, peered around the corner for just a fraction of a second.

 

Big, burly Brynmor by the window. Two bodies on the sofa. Two bodies on the floor - her breath caught as she realised one was Annie. And tall, willowy Idaeus Robb standing over the screaming, writhing form of Tobias Grey.

 

She had to stop her legs from catapulting her forward on instinct, throwing herself at Robb and allowing the dull, thudding anger in her bones to grow to a red, blinding rage. It would not help. Brynmor would stop her even if Robb didn't. These two were the best - better even than the Death Eater out there.

 

At least, she noticed with some relief as her head came back under cover, Tobias was next to the fireplace. On the down side, while he was on the floor she wasn't sure she had the strength to carry him the final few feet inside. That was dead weight.

 

Bad choice of words there, Cole.

 

And the screaming continued as she tried, desperately, to think of a tactic. Tobias' screams of pain, of absolute agony as the Cruciatus racked every inch of his body. She would have shoved her fingers in her ears if being unable to hear wouldn't have been so ardently stupid of her.

 

So she fought to remain level-headed as her best friend in the world suffered the worst agony in the world.

 

Distraction. Cover. Run for it.

 

Then she was aware of Brynmor talking, and of Tobias' screaming diminishing slowly. "It's gone quiet outside. I can't see Sneddon. They've got to be close. We should go."

 

Damn it. Damn it, damn it, why did I have to stop that Death Eater... The short, sharp memory of the girl he'd been torturing shone before her mind, and with a curl of the lip, Tanith clutched her wand and lifted her hand to the clasp of the cloak wrapped around her.

 

Robb and Brynmor exchanged a few low words she couldn't hear, then came the much louder instruction to Tobias. "Stand. I would have you die on your feet."

 

Feet. Floo. I can do this. She tapped three times on the cloak's clasp, then carefully drew three objects from the belt of devices she had pilfered from Ritter's trunk. I'm going to die. Back around the corner she was dimly aware of Tobias speaking, his voice hoarse and absolutely empty. Even if she got him out of here, was all of him going to come with them? How much of the man she knew and... the man she knew was going to be trapped, forever, in this house?

 

"Better to know than not," she whispered under her breath. Then her hands tightened on the objects she held, and she leapt around the corner to hurl two of them in quick succession into the living room.

 

The first tumbled overhead with a whistling sound getting Brynmor, at least, to look up sharply at the Decoy Detonator, wand coming to follow what he had to look at as a possible threat. The second hit the ground in the middle of the living room.

 

Then everything went black as Ritter's old favourite, Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder, kicked in. By then, she was already moving.

 

Five steps diagonally forwards and right... She'd closed her eyes before throwing the devices, painted a picture in her mind of the scene before her, so she knew where all three standing in the room were when darkness fell. Hopefully, she would have a split second of confusion where nobody would move and her knowledge would remain accurate.

 

As expected, she smashed into Tobias on the sixth step. One arm wrapped around him, still clutching her wand; the other flew forwards to hurl the Floo powder in her grasp at where she was confident the fireplace sat. She heard him grunt at the impact but fold under it, allowing her momentum to carry them along; felt something smashing into her back with astonishing pain; heard Brynmor let out one magnificent curse.

 

Then they hit the fireplace, and her breath burned in her lungs as she hissed, "Cole estate!"

 

Green light flared around them, fading for pale yellow as they tumbled through the fireplace in the study back in her home. Neither of them kept their balance, falling heavily on the floor in a desperate, panting heap of pain and exhaustion. The room swam around her through blurred vision, dulled by the ache in her chest and the new sharpness in her back. Full circle, she thought, distantly.

 

They both lay on the floor for a long moment, Tobias' breath even more ragged than hers, and when he stirred it was tremendously weak. She didn't even bother to move, lying on her side and clutching her wounded ribs, idly wondering what the burning in her back was.

 

It was Tobias who reacted first, sitting up with a dazed and detached expression. He looked over at her, and the first thing he noticed was the charred and shredded remains of her cloak. "...he hit you with a slashing curse," he mumbled.

 

So that was the pain in her back. A Shield Charm on a cloak would only protect against so much, and though it had clearly absorbed the bulk of the dark magic in Robb's curse, it hadn't taken it all. Though, dully, Tanith realised she hadn't cared much for what Robb would throw at her - so long as it didn't stop her from getting Tobias into the fireplace. Even if he'd had the presence of mind to cast Avada Kedavra, the floo powder was already in the air, Tobias had been falling... maybe he'd have been sharp enough to say a location...

 

She sat up instead with a grimace, then looked down at her front. Her hands were bloody, and her clothes stained with red across where they were slit. "...Oh," was all she managed to say, eloquently.

 

Tobias seemed to be gathering his wits a little faster than her as his head darted back towards the fireplace. "Annie. You left..."

 

"She was dead, Toby." The words seemed empty, and her mouth didn't feel like her own as she formed them. "When I got there she was already dead."

 

He struggled to get to his feet, leaning heavily on the mantelpiece to do so. "You shouldn't have got me out of there," he said at last, voice shaking but holding a certain dark thread of anger which made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.

 

"Shouldn't have...?" She stared at him in confusion as she, too, tried to stand.

 

"You had... you..." He shook his head, then straightened up, and it was almost as if he hadn't just been through hell, such was the strength of his voice. "You had no right!"

 

Anger and absolute resentment boiled in her stomach to lend her some force of her own. "No right?" she spat, now standing on her own two feet to face him. The burning in her spine and ribs only served to incense this fury, though without adrenaline she was quite confident she wouldn’t be able to stand. "So I should have just left you there? Let you run off on your own? Watched you die?"

 

Her voice broke on the last, and she knew the sound of his screams would be with her the rest of her days.

 

He, too, seemed to crumple at this, swaying on his feet and leaning on the mantelpiece. "Die... oh, God, Annie..."

 

Then he would have fallen if she hadn't stepped forward to grab him, wrap her arms around him, and they crumpled to the floor together as the hot, pained tears finally came. He clutched at her desperately, sobbing into her shoulder, and somehow she managed to find the presence of mind to mumble pointless soothing words in his ear, and hold on to him tightly.

 

Would that, in his pain, and in the coming days of darkness, she never had to let him go.

Chapter 28: The Sound of Silence
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Chapter 27: The Sound of Silence


 


The funeral was a week later, on the last day before a return to school. A return to hypothetical normalcy.

 

It had been a week dominated by that one night. Where other youths had revelled in the remains of the festive period, had celebrated New Year's long and loud, had made the most of their freedom, Tobias' time had been spent in gloom.

 

And in something of a blur. He only vaguely recalled the immediate aftermath of being dragged through the Floo back to the Cole estate. The Aurors rushing in within minutes. Being carted off to Saint Mungo's - for Tanith's benefit as much as his own - and being asked questions even as healing charms were pumped into him for his broken hand and pain-wracked body. How had he known they were there? Why had he gone? What did they do? What did they look like?

 

It was a dark irony, of wishing desperately to forget an event burned into his mind when others required him to recall every single detail. But he had received answers, as well. Yes, all the MacKenzies were dead. Yes, they had been targeted specifically. No, everything else had just been standard Muggle-killing. No, they hadn't caught Brynmor or Robb.

 

Tanith had to have been asked the same, but he hadn't seen her since the Aurors arrived. Her injuries had probably been worse than him, slashing curses like to do more damage than a Cruciatus, and she'd taken two. It was just as well she'd worn the Shield Cloak, he'd overheard, or Robb's curse would have most likely sliced her spine in half.

 

And the Death Eater she'd incapacitated, Sneddon, had been captured. That was perhaps the only reason the two of them weren't being charged with the obstruction of justice - though the Aurors were very keen to talk to Altair Ritter about the now-confiscated Communication Orb. It was inarguable that Tanith had saved lives by being there so soon and acting when she did. Jacob Van Roden was, in fact, pushing for a reform of faster response times to crises, and plenty of people were now listening. How could the Aurors arrest the people who'd done their job quicker than them?

 

At least, the one person, Tobias reflected upon hearing that school of thought. He'd been told in no uncertain terms by the gruff Auror Cassius Vaughn that he'd been incredibly stupid for rushing off as he did. Tobias had just lain there and looked at the man until he'd left. They were, he knew deep down, right. But what else was he to have done?

 

He'd been in Saint Mungo's for a day more than he needed to, languid and unresponsive to what the Healers had to say and do until his mother had visited for the second time. The first had been in the immediate aftermath, and his memory was still fuzzy of that. Then work had called her away for a few days, until it seemed she'd had word that he was still hospitalised.

 

She'd come into his room without any of the cautious concern she'd held the first time, but with fire and determination to cover her fear. "Come on," she'd said without bothering with any other greeting. "Up you get."

 

He sat up, rubbing his eyes and blinking muggily about the hospital room. "What?"

 

Melissa Grey looked at him. "Is this the allegedly bright son of mine? I’m not sure that it is.” Her shoulders sagged as he continued to look at her in confusion. “You’ve been tended to enough that you don’t need to be here any more. There’s no reason for you to be taking up a bed. You're done here. Get up. We're going home."

 

"Three of my fingers were broken," he protested weakly.

 

"Were. They're fixed. And even then it wouldn't stop you being up and about." His mother folded her arms across her chest, watching him with that keen-eyed gaze he’d always assumed had come from his father’s side of the family. But, no. His father had been the Ravenclaw, the intellectual. The shot of steel in him, that was pure Slytherin, and pure Melissa Hart.

 

Not that he cared so much for that right then, clenching his no longer aching hand into a fist. "I suffered prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus curse!"

 

"I've known wizards to be on the receiving end of that, then get up and keep fighting. It takes hours for the Cruciatus to leave damage that a day or so of bed-rest can't fix." She took a step closer, tapping her temple. "The Healers say it's not your body that's the problem, it's up here. Your will. And no son of mine is going to languish in bed while there's still a life out there to lead."

 

"They killed her!" Tobias snapped, straightening up in bed. He had never been angry at his mother before. Hardly even in the manner of teenaged outrage; they had always been too distant for that. Loving, but detached. And though he'd resented Vaughn, though he was nursing a slow-burning hatred for Robb and Brynmor, he hadn't been angry with anyone about what had happened. Yet.

 

"They killed her right in front of me and they didn’t care. They laughed," he continued, now in a lower, more openly furious voice. "Then they tortured me for daring to try to stop their sport. And you're upset with me for taking a few days to recover?"

 

His mother rested her hands calmly on the foot of the bed. "Yes," she said levelly, but not with any lack of sympathy. "You're fit. You're healthy. You’re alive. You have every reason to be up and about as soon as possible."

 

He gave a short, hollow, mocking laugh. "Like what?"

 

She leaned forwards across the bed, fixing him with a piercing stare. Again, Tobias remembered that he had always been told he took after his father, but the squirming discomfort and shame he suddenly felt under her scrutiny was a lot like that he saw on the face of some pupil or prefect he was disciplining in school.

 

"They tell me yours is a one in a generation mind, Toby." Her voice stayed quiet, ringing of disappointment, and as expected, that was worse. "That you could do great things. We are in a war. What greater thing could you do than fight?”

 

Tobias resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Barely. “It’s been a matter of days, Mum,” he objected. “I’m… taking time to get better…”

 

“Will you be out tomorrow?” she interrupted, voice quick but not sharp.

 

He stopped. “I… don’t know,” he admitted with a somewhat baffled blink.

 

“Or the day after? Will you be out by the time Hogwarts starts?” Melissa continued, not missing a beat.

 

Tobias stared. “Of course!”

 

“Then you should be out today. Because otherwise you gain nothing lying in bed letting your mind be broken now your body’s fixed.” She straightened up, head tilting back a little. "You could do many things instead of lying there languishing," she continued. "You could be making sure this doesn't happen again. Or you could just be repaying the risk Tanith took to save your life by actually making her gamble worth it. Or you could do something about the men who killed Annie."

 

There his anger found something to latch onto, white hot and tenacious in its grip. "Like you did something about the man who killed Dad?"

 

His mother jerked back as if struck, then straightened up abruptly. "Tobias Ulysses Grey, don't you dare - don't you dare throw that accusation at me. Whoever it was, he's in Azkaban, or dead. The world needed to move on, instead of losing itself in appointing blame when guilt was already enough for ten lifetimes. Your father's death was a tragedy, but the kind almost every family felt."

 

"The kind every... listen to yourself!" Tobias threw his hands in the air in frustration. "It's not. Most kids didn't grow up without a father, whatever the war might have done. As for appointing blame - it's important now. The man who killed Dad? Thanatos Brynmor." He sat up straighter, jaw set. "He's running around free. He killed Annie, and he almost killed me. It matters."

 

Melissa fell silent, gaze briefly staggered - so, acting on an academic's instincts, driving his point home, he pushed on. "He's still out there. And you're damn right I'm going to do something about him. I'm going to find him, and I'm going to kill him. So don't lecture me about lying here languishing when you didn't even care enough to find your husband's murderer!"

 

This time there was no flinch, no sign of the verbal blow striking home. Save that his mother's face went queerly dead, and she stepped away from the bed. There was a long silence, and when she did speak it was in a quiet, detached manner, as if coming from a long way away. She did not quite make eye contact.

 

"I loved your father. Enough to turn my back on everything I had been taught, everything my family believed. Enough to turn my back on all of them. You've seen them now, they've all but disowned me." She gave a small sigh, which held enough of a waver to suggest she clung fiercely to control. "And our time together was fleeting. I gave up everything for him - and then I lost him. And my family wouldn't have me back, they could not forgive me for marrying a Muggle-born. So that left me with you."

 

His mother shook her head, then took a few steps towards the door. "But you're of an age now. And clearly have your own ideas about how to live your life, and your own judgements about how I've lived mine. So I won't presume to tell you what to do anymore."

 

Her hand grasped the door handle. "The office needs me in Paris. The upgrades to the vaults in the catacombs are extensive with the worry of Dark Wizard activity spreading. Come and see me before you go back to Hogwarts, we’ll buy you a new wand at Dupont’s now Ollivander’s gone. Otherwise, of course, the house is free for you."

 

Then she was gone, her footsteps echoing down the Saint Mungo's corridor, and leaving Tobias alone.

 

He left the hospital an hour later, once his tears of rage, loss, guilt, and self-loathing had dried up.

 

The day of the funeral, he almost hadn't gone. It was only when a covered carriage about the size of those which would take him from the train to Hogwarts when school began, boldly emblazoned with the faded sigil of the Cole family, swept through the skies and landed in his back garden, that his mind was changed for him.

 

The carriage was drawn by a broad-chested, golden Abraxan winged horse, who had looked at Tobias as if indignant he would have come all of this way for nothing had he refused. To back him up, there was Tanith, still moving with difficulty, walking with the aid of a stick, and telling him in no uncertain terms that he was coming.

 

This was the first time he’d seen her since that day. Guilt, rather than a true will to go, saw him clamber into the back of the carriage. He almost left again when he saw Gabriel and Cal already inside, but held his tongue and let the journey pass in silence. He could feel Gabriel's gaze burning into him as he stared out the window, and Cal...

 

...well, he didn't know what to think of Cal right then.

 

Your best friend, and you didn't know he wasn't your man?

 

Had that just been a lie? But why would they lie? Why would they tell him that if they were only going to kill him? Brynmor had wanted him to suffer, yes, but would he go so far as to fabricate something that outrageous solely to torment him?

 

Even though the answer to that was probably 'yes', it didn't stop the pieces slowly slotting together. Cal's increased detachment. His sudden comprehension of Death Eater propaganda. And who had he been writing to all of this time...

 

Tobias felt sick, and turned his face away so the cool outside air trickling through the window could steady his stomach.

 

The journey passed in silence, before they swept - under the protection of various anti-Muggle charms - down to the graveyard near Annie's home. Her parents and brother had been buried the day before, in the presence of family and friends who believed it was a house fire that had claimed the MacKenzies. But Annie had been a witch. She deserved a witch's funeral.

 

It was an intentional two fingers up to the Death Eaters who had targeted her because they thought she was lesser, and Tobias approved.

 

Gabriel got out the carriage first, and blinked at the bright, cold sky, and the scene before him. "What," he muttered. "Here?"

 

"It's a graveyard, Doyle," Tobias said testily.

 

"Yeah, but..." He shook his head, and hopped to the ground, still peering at his surroundings. "Piss. Never mind."

 

Tobias didn't press - didn't care - but saw the frenetic look in Gabriel's eyes as he helped Tanith down, saw him nod firmly and mumble something that had her pat him on the arm.

 

Then they all trooped towards the gathering, towards the crowd. It was a small affair, of probably no more than twenty people. Half of their year, some Gryffindors, Professor McGonagall. Tobias balked as they reached the back, and wordlessly his three friends stopped beside him, not pressing for any of them to go to the front - as would realistically be his right - and legitimising his wish to hang back by sticking together. A group at the outskirts was less of an oddity than a loner at the back.

 

The ceremony itself passed in something of a blur. Afterwards, he could remember little. His eyes stinging as the casket was lowered into the cold, hard ground. Jennifer Riley crying salty tears onto Nick Wilson's shoulder, while the latter glared daggers at him across the grave. Tanith's hand slipping into his as they piled the earth on, and him clutching to it like the waves of grief pouring off all present might wash him away otherwise.

 

Then it was over, and still they stood there as the others departed. Riley had recovered from her tears enough to approach him at the end and give him a grief-stricken hug. He barely returned it. That display of hers saw some of the other Gryffindors, Anderson and Sawyer and Everard, passing by to at least shake his hand. But others, like Wilson and McLaggen, stayed away.

 

And soon everyone was gone, and it was just the four of them. Cal looked between his friends, looked at Tobias and Tanith, then his gaze settled on Gabriel. "I saw a pub around the corner," he began. Whether or not it was true was irrelevant; it was, at the least, likely to be the case. "Looked like they did Beacon on tap."

 

Gabriel blinked at him. The whole time he had been unable to look at just one thing; his gaze had been flickering to and fro across the graveyard, and Tobias had heard him swear when Riley had begun weeping. "I have no idea what that is," he said at last.



"Beer. We'll drink it, we'll like it. Or I'll like it, at least. C'mon." Cal grabbed him by the arm with a grip that would brook no argument, and yanked him towards the gateway.

 

A silence fell upon Tobias and Tanith as their footsteps echoed off. Eventually, tremulously, Tobias ventured, "I like beer." In a strange way, he felt excluded from their trip, as if his grief was isolating.

 

"Not right now you don't," Tanith chided gently. "When did you last eat?" When he didn't answer, they fell back into an uneasy silence. It was a full ten seconds before she spoke again. "Do you... d'you want me to go so you can say..."

 

"I have nothing to say," Tobias said quickly, cutting her off. The idea of talking to cold stone, overturned earth and, somewhere beneath, just flesh and bones was more chill than his already frozen form could cope with.

 

"Then help me back to the carriage? We can wait there."

 

He glanced down at the word 'help', and realised with a start that this was the first time he'd properly looked at her since that day. She wasn't as pale as he knew himself to be from glimpses in the mirror, but she had definitely suffered the brunt of the long-term physical ailments from their ordeal. She leaned heavily on the cane as she walked, her back clearly not up to supporting her full weight with ease, and she even moved her arms with difficulty, to avoid stretching the torn skin on her front.

 

But she was here. Alive. Next to him. And the warmth of her hand still gripping his was a welcome lifeline.

 

He let her rest her weight on him as they hobbled back to the carriage. It felt good to feel the burden, to feel relied on in such an obvious, physical, tangible manner. But they were still halfway there before he found the courage to seek his tongue.

 

"...thank you."

 

Tanith faltered a little at this, gaze flickering. "You don't have to thank me." Her voice sounded a bit pained.

 

"I do. I really do." His own was cracked and broken from a dry mouth and too much grief. "I was abysmal to you, and you still came. You risked your life for us. And I was abysmal to you after. So I'm sorry, as well as grateful."

 

"I'll take the apology, and you're already forgiven," she said quietly. "But I don't want the thanks. Especially not..." There was another pause as Tanith drew a deep breath, fighting to lean on him a little less. "I didn't risk my life for her."

 

Tobias nodded, slowing down a little as her movement grew a little more laboured. "Then thank you for just me."

 

"I didn't... do it for thanks. I did it because I didn't know how to just sit there and let you run off to die." She paused for half a beat. "You'd do the same for me."

 

It was almost a question, and one which made him stop and turn to face her. "I would," he pressed, strength returning to his voice a little. "You know I would."

 

Their eyes met, then Tanith smiled a small, sad smile and turned back to the carriage. "I just hope it's never needed, then."

 

"I doubt I'd be as good as you at the rescue thing, mind," Tobias mumbled. "You didn't just save my neck, you captured a Death Eater. Not bad for an evening's work."

 

"It was a delay."

 

"You did the right thing. He'd have killed more people."

 

"Not the people I cared about." Her grip on his forearm tightened a little.

 

An uneasy silence fell on them for a few more slow, laborious steps. "I just ran past him," Tobias confessed at last. "He was hurting and killing people, and I just ran past him. I wanted to save Annie, but... he was killing families. Parents. Children. Loved ones." His gaze drops. "I didn't save Annie, but not stopping him is something I regret more."

 

Tanith paused as they reached the carriage at last. "He was a tough nut to crack. I'm not sure you could have dropped him."

 

"Are you saying you're better than me?" He injected a note of amused wryness, genuinely intending for this to be a joke.

 

She shrugged. "In this? Yes. You play by the rules. I cheated."

 

"And won."

 

"And won, yes." She nodded in concession.

 

Tobias extended his arm so she could brace against it, and she climbed into the carriage in small, laborious steps. "Then whatever it takes. It doesn't matter... I need to not be beaten by this." His mother's words rang guiltily in his ears. "And I can't undo it... and I can't take on Brynmor and Robb... so I just have to make sure this doesn't happen again."

 

She peered at him as she sat down in the carriage, and he hopped in after her despite the stiffness in his muscles, a calling card of the Cruciatus curse. "How?"

 

"I'm not sure yet," Tobias admitted, sitting down. "But I think I'm going to have to look somewhere other than International Magic Cooperation for a purpose."

 

Tanith regarded him for a long moment, her gaze holding a mixture of assessment and uncertainty. Then she gave a tired smile, and a small nod. "Well. If anyone can save the world, Grey, it's you."


Chapter 29: The Day After Tomorrow
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Chapter 28: The Day After Tomorrow


 

The prefects' tower was awash with curiosity as Tanith attempted the perilous gauntlet from the door to the tea table. The stairs had been hard enough, her back by now screaming in painful protest from the climb, but limping across the crowded room promised to be even worse, albeit for less physical reasons.

 

"I'm not going to answer that," she mumbled, again and again as questions were thrown at her, until she could avoid the issue entirely by gratefully gulping down on the cup of tea passed to her by Hufflepuff prefect Lisa Fletcher. She was one of the few in the room not haranguing her with questions, no doubt recalling the fallout from O'Neal's death, and the only one silent but still in the crowd. Those not ruled by curiosity lurked in the corner, otherwise.

 

Most of the school had reacted little to Annie MacKenzie's death. Enough pupils had suffered as of late of dead parents, or cousins, or aunts and uncles, that a quiet girl known by few was not missed. Nor had she been the only casualty; a second year Ravenclaw boy had also not returned from the holidays. But the prefects had been a captive audience of the year's inter-House politics, and Annie had undeniably played a role in those.

 

And with Tobias nowhere to be seen even ten minutes late for the meeting, so did the vultures of gossip turn to Tanith for answers. She, on the other hand, tried to ignore the babble, ignore the pain in her back, and delicately picked out a biscuit, considering it a better alternative to dignifying the questions with a response.

 

"Enough! What's wrong with you all?"

 

Jennifer Riley's voice cut through the crowd like a knife. A sharp, angry knife, and the tall Head Girl stormed in to the room with a presence enough to make even Tanith flinch. "What's happened is a tragedy," she snapped, striding to the centre. "Not a freak show for your amusement and to indulge your curiosity over."

 

Silence fell, perhaps contributed to by Tom Everard looming over Riley's shoulder and glaring at everyone, until the Head Girl gave a satisfied nod. She glanced over at Tanith, raising an eyebrow. "You alright, Cole?"

 

Helpful, Riley. Real helpful. Tanith nibbled delicately on a biscuit, trying to pretend like her spine didn't feel as if it was going to snap in half. "Did they change the biscuits? Bloody good."

 

Riley chewed on her lower lip, seeming to recognise her mistake, and turned back to the rest. "Well. Yes. We had best be started." She clapped her hands together with more enthusiasm than the first prefect meeting after Christmas really, in Tanith's opinion, warranted. "Welcome back, everyone. It's good to see you all here again."

 

Except we're not all here, are we, Tanith thought darkly, perching herself against the snacks table. Standing hurt, but so did getting up after sitting down, and she wasn't going to show off her pain to half the school if she could avoid it. If she sat in the Common Room, she didn't tend to get up again until it was quiet, and meal times had become their own hilarity, of leaning so heavily on Cal he was almost picking her up again. But she had no allies here. Nobody she could show she was weakened.

 

They'd said at Saint Mungo's she was lucky to be alive - that the slashing curse would have severed her spine if it hadn't been for the Shield Cloak. Tanith had calmly pointed out that planning, then, not luck had kept her alive, because she'd expected to be hit with a curse when she'd charged in to the room and that was why she'd brought the cloak. Her cockiness hadn't been entirely approved of, and the Healer had gone on to argue that, then, she was lucky she didn't need major magical aid to walk, as would have been the case if the curse had been a few inches to the left. She hadn't had an answer to that, and had just let them try to patch it up.

 

She'd been told to give it a month of rest. After a week she was going mad. One more and she'd start her jogging again, to hell with what the Healers said. Tanith had already abandoned the stick at school, but a limp was more respectable than a walking aid.

 

So she coped. And was, at least, overlooked compared to Tobias. Except for when Tobias wasn't there.

 

"I don't know where Tobias is," Riley was saying, "but I'm sure I can handle you horrible lot myself without him, and I'm sure he knows we're all thinking of him. But we've got job allocations to worry about, responsibilities to hammer out."

 

Late night patrols were a perk of being a seventh-year prefect, apparently, and Tanith was ever swift to volunteer for them. Better than supervising first years or watching over the chess club. This time was no exception, though she could not help but note Riley allowed Fletcher and Everard to partner up even though the last thing those two would be doing together would be patrolling. And letting Hooper supervise safety in the Herbology club when she was liable to fail her OWL in it was perhaps not the most sensible option.

 

But then, Tobias had always been the one who'd known his prefects. Known what they were good at, where to place them. Riley's strengths lay in the organisation, in making sure the schedules were up to date and everyone knew what they were doing.

 

Where is he?

 

They were into the next Hogsmeade trip supervision by the time that question was answered, as the door flew open and in strode Tobias. He'd looked pale and drawn since Boxing Day, underfed and scrawny and just generally tired. But now, with his arms full of stacks of paper, he finally seemed to have a bit of a spark to his eye again, a bit of energy to his movements.

 

"Sorry I'm late. I was Floo-ing with London from Professor Slughorn's office." He sounded a bit more like his old self as he hurried to the front, shoving papers in to folders and giving an apologetic smile.

 

Riley blinked. "London?"

 

"We'll have to rearrange our talk with Professor McGonagall on Saturday," Tobias said, almost dismissively. "I'll be at an interview with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement."

 

Tanith frowned. "But the Enforcer interviews aren't until the end of the month," she said in confusion.

 

Tobias looked over at her, nonplussed. "I know."

 

"The only MLE interviews this weekend are Auror interviews..." Tanith's voice trailed off, and she stared at him. "The application date closed months ago."

 

He shrugged. "It was reopened."

 

Anger saw her forget that they were in a crowded room, forget the pain in her back as months of writing and rewriting the application form, reading and exercising and getting ready for interview, and painstakingly working for years to meet the prerequisites flashed before her eyes, and Tanith leapt to her feet. "You spoke to Professor Slughorn."

 

Tobias didn't even look apologetic. "I did."

 

"And he-"

 

"We have a meeting," Riley reminded them very quietly. She spoke low enough to make it clear she took no pleasure in venturing to the ring that was the by-now familiar battle between Tobias Grey and Tanith Cole, especially in recent months, but it was enough to have them fall silent.

 

Tanith straightened up, and ignored the slight grinding sense in the small of her back. "You have my responsibilities already sorted," she snapped, and stormed to the door. She knew Riley wouldn't dare call for her back, and that Tobias probably wouldn't think to. She was right, and made it unimpeded to the door and down the winding staircase that had her hobbling by the time she reached the bottom.

 

In the corridor lurked Gabriel, pacing to and fro and checking his watch every few seconds. He was another upon whom the holidays had taken their toll, though Tanith had no concept as to what his price had been. He didn't look as skeletal as Tobias, or as battered as Tanith knew she looked. But he was tired, and for once looking anything but immaculately presentable, dark hair wild, robes scruffy.

 

He started with surprise as she emerged in the corridor. "I thought you had a while longer."

 

"I did, but..." Tanith shut her mouth abruptly. It wouldn't do to complain about Tobias. It just seemed... awfully unforgiving, even if he had just subverted through favouritism a system she had danced to the tune of for years. "I don't need to be there the whole thing."

 

"Oh. Good." He fell in to step with her as she hobbled down the corridor, not seeming to notice her difficulty walking. "Listen, I've been trying to grab you for the last few days..."

 

"I've been busy. Sorry," she said, and meant it.

 

"It's fine. Tobias comes first. I know that." Gabriel shrugged, waving a hand dismissively. "But I... I've had a few breakthroughs. On you-know-what." She glanced up to see him tapping his temple.

 

"Oh?" Her interest was not feigned, but had to fight through the aching in her lower spine. She glanced up and down the corridor to make sure it was empty this time of the evening, then came to a halt and leaned against the wall. They could probably talk here - and she could rest.

 

"The funeral. MacKenzie's funeral. It was the one I saw." Gabriel spoke in a low, agitated voice that was entirely unlike him. The unflappable Gabriel Doyle was flapping. "Only I saw it through Wilson's eyes. With Riley crying on my - er, his - shoulder, and he was glaring at Tobias..."

 

Tanith pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to will thoughts and recollections into coherency. "You're sure?"

 

"Absolutely. Absolutely." Gabriel jigged up and down a little with stress. "So that means... d'you think it was Annie I bumped into and saw get killed? I think it adds up, there were two people, I thought there was a third person on the floor - Tobias? I mean, if you could get me a picture of what the place looked -"

 

"No." Tanith's voice dropped to sub-zero levels. "I'm not getting pictures. I'm not drawing you pictures. No. Just... no."

 

Gabriel rubbed the back of his neck, not seeming to notice her own upset. "It'd be really helpful... I mean, it might have been someone else's death. These are coming true, Tanith. We have to do something."

 

"Do?" Tanith asked, even though the real question bouncing around her pounding brain was 'we?'.

 

"Talk to someone. Warn people. Stop them." Gabriel waved his hands vaguely and a little desperately.

 

Tanith stopped, drawing a deep breath. "I never did Divination," she began slowly. Now was not the time for her to try and concentrate on such a problem. "I have no idea if the future is mutable, if you're just crazy, or what. I think, Gabe... I think you need to talk to someone who knows about this more than me."

 

Gabriel straightened up. "I'm not going to that old coot Trelawney."

 

"Then go to the centaur."

 

He paused at this, expression thoughtful. "Firenze. And the centaurs do have a somewhat... sensible attitude to foretelling. At least he won't think I'm mad."

 

He might. But nobody will listen to him. He can't get you committed. "He'll know more than you or me." Tanith shrugged.

 

Gabriel stayed silent for a moment, stroking his chin. He hadn't been shaving lately, she noted with a start. Even Tobias had been shaving, though the cuts on his cheeks suggested not with too much concentration. But Gabriel's dishevelment was beginning to reach worrying levels. "You're right," he mused.

 

"I know I'm right." Tanith managed a wan smile. "Expert advice, Doyle. We'll get through this."

 

"Yeah." Gabriel nodded, gaze going thoughtful and distant in a manner completely unlike him. "Yeah." Then he patted her on the shoulder, and walked off distractedly.

 

She glared at his disappearing form incredulously. "Bye," she muttered venomously once he was out of earshot, then straightened up with a wince. "You crackpot."

 

Her progress back to the common room was slow with the throbbing in her back. Even though she took a shortcut, exercising her memory of the various Hogwarts corridors, the journey was still longer than she'd anticipated. And, with all of her luck, she had only minutes left before she'd best set off for dinner by the time she staggered in to the common room.

 

Cal sat over by a window, staring out of it with a dark frown on his face. He'd been scowling a lot since Christmas, but odd behaviour from Cal this year was, at least, not a novelty to her. She hobbled over and collapsed on to the overstuffed armchair opposite him with a groan. "Hey."

 

He grunted in response, and the apathy sparked a flare of bitter anger in her, fuelled by pain and aggravation. "Oh, what's wrong with your life? Does Lockett give a shit blowjob?"

 

His gaze turned sharply on her, and she couldn't help but darkly note that this, at least, had gotten his attention. "Because I couldn't possibly have problems which were worse than your burdens, Tanith."

 

No, people do. But I think they've used up all the woe that's left. I hope.

 

"Sorry," she said, then wondered why she was apologising. "Just seems the world and his wife has trouble these days. What's up?"

 

"Nothing." Cal turned back to the window, but before Tanith could find something to throw at him, he drew a deep breath. "You think it's safe for purebloods and muggle-borns to mingle right now?"

 

Tanith watched him for a moment, her heart sinking as she put two and two together. Perhaps there was a little woe left over. "Are you making Lockett a target, you mean."

 

Cal's expression flickered. "Tobias made Mac one," he said, not with accusation but with sadness, and a hint of guilt which made her frown with confusion.

 

"You don't have the profile Toby does," Tanith pointed out with an effort of reassurance. "And hardly anyone knows for sure what's going on between you two."

 

"The party wasn't exactly low profile."

 

With all that had happened that night - and Tanith winced and pushed back memories of pain, both emotional and physical - she'd forgotten about Lockett throwing herself at Cal. "Still... she's as likely to be attacked for being a muggle-born as she is for going out with you."

 

Cal didn't look convinced, and opened his mouth to speak. Then he stopped, and scowled. "I guess so."

 

She looked at him for a few long moments, then sighed and gave up. "Where's Grey? Is the meeting over?"

 

"Hm? Oh. Yeah." Cal shrugged, looking back across the enchanted window. "In the dorm. Why?"

 

"I've got something to give him." A piece of my mind. She stood with a grunt of pain and started for the stairway without even bothering to wait for a response, but from the look of Cal's apathy there wouldn't be one. Was she the only person who recognised that the world still turned, regardless of one's woes?

 

Then Miles Bletchley emerged out the door leading to the dormitories and she almost jumped out of her skin. And he smiled at her.

 

She couldn't help but flinch. Avoiding him had been hard work when he was in her House, in her classes, in the common room and at mealtimes. But she'd managed it. And though she went to shift around him now, trying to bolt to the door, he moved to block her way.

 

"Hey Tanith," he said, in a voice he probably thought was flirtatious. "Hoped we'd run into each other."

 

It was all she could do to fight down the small bubble of panic. "Miles, I have to go see Grey..."

 

"Hm? Oh, he's in the dorm. Looking for some text book for something-or-other." He ran a hand through his curly hair. "Look, we should talk..."

 

"It's really important I get to Grey, Miles," she pressed on, eyeing the gap under his arm and wondering if she could break under it.

 

"...or not talk, if you know what I mean, that's good too." Bletchley's grin broadened to even more oily levels.

 

"Miles!" That came louder than she meant to, drawing their way prying gazes she felt itching and burning her skin with their curiosity. But it also stunned Bletchley for long enough that she could dash past him, ducking under his arm and shuddering where she brushed against him.

 

Don't dwell. The world keeps turning.

 

She cursed her gut for doing somersaults as she dashed up the stairs, heart thumping in her chest in fear of Bletchley following her. This wasn't the mood she'd wanted to be in to talk to Grey. She needed to be calm. Level. Fuelled by, but not driven by anger. And now she couldn't stop her hand from shaking as she reached for the door to the seventh year boys' dorm room, or her stomach from churning as she stepped in.

 

"Grey," she declared, internally cursing the mild warble she could hear in her voice, "we should talk. That you bypassed the Auror application process thanks to Slughorn is something I find offensive, and I can't believe you of all people have done it knowing how much I worked for..."

 

Then she stopped, for when she looked up she saw him sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. Next to him was a thick Arithmancy text book, brand new, which she didn't recognise - and he'd enthused at her enough about his new purchases that she thought she knew them all by heart by now. He was still. He was silent. And he didn’t even raise his head to look at her.

 

"I'd forgotten I had this," he said at last, his voice not holding the thickness of grief she'd expected, but a certain dull emptiness. "It ended up in my pile of books when I was packing after she gave it to me."

 

Tanith didn't need to ask who 'she' was, and wordlessly padded across to the bed to sit next to him. He didn't react, not like times in the past week when he'd reach for her hand or move closer. This was some new threshold of grief, one she didn't recognise.

 

"I've been fine since we got back," he continued, almost obliviously. "I've seen empty spaces in class where she sat. Places we talked and laughed. And nothing. I was waking up each day and telling myself 'It's better today'. Each day, a little better.

 

"Then I opened that damned book." Tobias drew his hands down to show dry eyes, but there was a distant glint to them that unnerved her. "I want to get those bastards, I really do. For her. And to make sure nobody else has to wake up in the morning and feel like this."

 

Idly, Tanith reached out to open the front, and immediately, on the first blank page, the small piece of paper tucked inside caught her eye. Of course she would have known better than to write in a precious textbook if it were a gift for him.

 

The words were simple. 'With all my love, Annie'.

 

Somehow, that made the sting in her eyes even sharper. There was no sonnet of love, no ode to their bond. Just short words, and that made it the worse, for there was a future in their brevity. The assumption that there would be more words, and all the time in the world to find them. Together.

 

Tanith didn't say anything. Just closed the book, put her arm around him, and was silently grateful that mere hard work and long hours, rather than loss and pain, had been the fuel for her Auror application.

Chapter 30: The Stars Above
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Chapter 29: The Stars Above


 

It was disturbing how easy it had been to avoid people for the last week. Like they expected him to be isolationist and secretive, like anti-sociability were the norm for him. He'd thought it was a trait more associated with Gabe. He'd thought he'd have to work at it.

 

But they left him alone, lost in their own pains and unobservant of his own distractions, such that it had been easy to slip away in the dead of night from the dorm-room. So now his footsteps thudded across the wooden floor of the Astronomy Tower to the beat of his thumping heart, and each step was a word.

 

Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.

 

Over and over, burning into his brain. Guilt for who he was, for what he’d done. For just how much pain he’d brought down upon others. For just how stupid he’d been, how believing… how naïve…

 

‘Hide our words and these thoughts from your friends, for they will surely not understand your curiosity. They will be as closed-minded as you once were.’

 

Innocent questions. Innocent curiosity. So easy to just ask. So easy to just be told.

 

Who wouldn’t want to know? Who wouldn’t want the mystery of family unravelled, when it had been lost for so long? Morality took a back seat when it came to that kind of burning need – though he should have listened to it nevertheless, used the communication for good, to find him, rather than to satisfy his own childish wants.

 

Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.

 

When he’d answered the very first letter he'd been angry, sanctimonious. He wasn't sure why. He wasn’t sure what good he thought he might be doing. Did he think he could change them? Change him? With pen and paper, make him see the error of his ways? A path other than hatred?

 

He didn't know when he'd given up. The second letter? The third? When it had stopped being a battle and become... contact?

 

Contact with blood. Contact with evil.

 

Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.

 

He'd never meant for this to happen. Never meant for them to learn so much and turn it upon him, turn it upon his loved ones.

 

Traitor. Traitor. Trai-

 

"Cal?"

 

His pacing stopped, the accusations stopped, and for half a moment his heart stopped as he heard the soft voice from the stairway and whirled around to see Nathalie's head popping up from the floor.

 

"I got your letter," she babbled obviously, hurrying up to the top, her small form silhouetted against the moonlight. "Are you alright? I've been worried about you, I've been wanting to talk to you - how's Tobias?"

 

A myriad of questions, all sensible and thoughtful and real. And completely innocent of the truth.

 

You're not a traitor, a dark voice whispered in his ear with sensuous temptation. You were lost, confused, you've never known your father. You just wanted to reach out, you didn't know this would happen... go to her, she'll make it better...

 

He flinched as she approached, and the voice died, the guilt returning in its wake. He took a step back, trying to broaden the gap, keep her at bay, for, as he'd worried, if she approached he'd be weak again.

 

You don't want to endanger her. This voice was firmer, if angrier, and had smatterings of his foster-father in it, albeit in his more judgemental moments. You don't deserve her.

 

"It's over," he blurted out, and that voice died too, now just leaving him with a wrenching emptiness where once the angel and devil had sat side by side.

 

Nat looked at him calmly. "Why?" she asked. Her voice had a no-nonsense edge he hadn't expected, but there was still a patient, collected tone – almost as if she was speaking to a child throwing a tantrum.

 

He opened and closed his mouth, working it a little before he found words to stammer. "It's not working between us."

 

"That's because you've been avoiding me, Cal," she said with surprising calm. "That's okay. You had a rough Christmas. Your best friend's in an awful place right now."

 

He's your best friend and you did that to him, the angry voice whispered, and Cal wished he were empty again.

 

Nat's voice took on a softer edge, with a small hint of hesitation. "I just want to help. I can... I can wait, if you want. Give you the time you need. But you can... I can just be here. Listen. To anything. What's wrong. Or Quidditch. All the time you need. Here or somewhere else. It can be better."

 

"It can't." There was a harshness to his voice which wasn't quite his own, and it tore at his throat.

 

There was a pause, then Nat took a deep breath, her gaze hardening. "I know what this is," she said, still with a hint of patience. "Lots of purebloods have been worrying about any Muggle-born girlfriends or boyfriends they've got after what happened to Mac. It doesn't make us a target, Cal, honestly. I've got a higher chance of being hit by a bus than I have of being attacked by a Death Eater." She frowned a bit. "Well, maybe not when there are no buses here at Hogwarts, but..."

 

"It's not that." Cal looked away, misery twisting his gut. It wasn't entirely a lie.

 

"It's something else."

 

"Yes."

 

"And you're breaking up with me over it."

 

"Yes."

 

"But you're not telling me what it is."

 

Cal closed his eyes. "I'm sorry."

 

"No."

 

He paused. Then he looked at her. "What?"

 

Nat met his gaze levelly. She had to look up quite a height to do so. "I reject your break-up."

 

He blinked. "You can't do that!"

 

"Just did. I'm not being dumped when I don't know why. So you're stuck with me." She shrugged and smiled that impish smile which lit up her face and usually left him tongue-tied.

 

"I... I can't tell you!" Cal sputtered with confusion. This wasn't what he'd anticipated. Anger. Shouting. Tears. Cursing. Perhaps even cold, defensive detachment. But outright refusal?

 

Nat nodded. "I know. And that's okay. You don't have to. You can work out this stuff without talking to me about it. And I'm okay to wait until you've done that." She stepped forwards, and as her hand extended he shied from her touch.

 

You don't deserve the comfort.

 

Instead, she poked him in the chest. "But you owe me better than cutting me out of your life over it. Because I'm kind of fond of you, you great lug." Another shrug. "Also, I don't do the angsty 'oh, I must leave you to keep you safe' crap so much. I don't look good in black."

 

Cal stared at her, sputtering still in a hunt for words. "Nat, you don't understand..."

 

"...because you won't tell me," she supplied helpfully.

 

"I can't!" He threw his hands in the air to emphasise his point and only then did he dimly realise that gestures might not convince her. "You just have to believe me that you're way more at risk with me than any other pureblood."

 

Nat bit her lip, then drew a deep breath. "I know your father's a Death Eater," she said slowly. "And I know the rumours that he killed Mac. And I know that this means we should probably skip any 'meet the parents' ritual, on your side, at least. Maybe consider it if we have Auror backing. But there's one important thing: I don't care."

 

Cal looked at her suspiciously. She hadn’t guessed the whole truth, but it was close enough to have a bite, and he dimly wondered if he'd been covering his tracks as well as he'd assumed. "You should."

 

"And then maybe I shouldn't be at Hogwarts, either, since they hate Muggle-borns? Oh, but they hate Muggles to, so perhaps I ought to leave the country." Nat rolled her eyes, speaking with unusual venom. "Life's too short for that rubbish, Cal."

 

"It might be really short!"

 

"Fine. So be it."

 

"No!" He stepped back, anger returning with the guilt. "I won't be the cause of it. You might be okay burning up in a short blaze of glory to make a point -"

 

"No, I’m okay taking this risk because I want to. I don't care what point I'm making," Nat interrupted.

 

"But I'd rather see you alive and well than dead because of me! Do you think I want that?" He hunched up as he spoke, fear beginning to override the frustration and making his belly tangle up with his lungs for a wave of nausea and breathlessness.

 

Nat looked down at the floor at this, at the moonlight playing across the floor of the Astronomy Tower and suggesting a peace to the world they both knew was a lie. "...I'd hope not," she said, as ever unable to avoid the slightest note of levity. "Or this relationship kinda sucks."

 

He laughed despite himself, but it was a good laugh, a laugh to untangle the tension - even if that brought fear with it. Then she giggled a little, and he couldn't help but meet her gaze with a nervous edge.

 

"Please," he whispered. "I couldn't bear it."

 

He didn't know then if he wanted her to reach for him or not. To close the gap and to let him wrap his arms around her, or to stay back and let him feel the cold. No less than you deserve.

 

Silence fell for several long, aching moments, before she drew a deep breath, gaze thoughtful - but with that playful edge he'd grown to adore. "It seems to me," she began slowly, "that the key to any relationship is compromise..."

 
 

§


 

"Professor?"

 

It was cold outside, even when Gabriel stood but a stone's throw from the front doors of the castle, and he wrapped his coat around himself a little more tightly as he padded towards the equine form of Professor Firenze. The centaur stood out in the open, silhouetted against the moonlight reflecting off the lake, and stared up at the clear, cold night sky.

 

"Gabriel Doyle. I hope this meeting time is not too difficult for you." Firenze's deep voice rolled across the slope between them and summoned him closer with its warmth.

 

"No, um, it's actually perfect." No prying eyes or ears. Demons discovered could die at dawn. He stepped up beside the centaur, his feet crunching on the iced grass, and glanced upwards. "Do they say anything tonight? The stars?"

 

"They always speak. The question is whether we listen."

 

There was a long pause as Gabriel watched his breath mist in front of him and felt his toes threaten to go numb. "...what are they saying?"

 

"That we must talk." Firenze looked down at him, seeming uncaring of the chill even though his torso was completely bare. "I was arrogant. I did not listen. I thought we would speak sooner."

 

"Sooner?"

 

"But one who can hear must learn to listen before they can learn. And you had not learnt to listen," Firenze said, as if this was all an obvious explanation. The wind picked up, tugging at the centaur's hair and tail, and sending dead leaves skittering across the rippling lake, briefly breaking its perfect smoothness.

 

Gabriel stayed silent, rubbing his hands together, waiting for Firenze to continue. When the centaur did not, he turned his gaze to the lake, and drew a deep breath. "I'm seeing things." A fresh confession, it twisted in his throat and almost didn't come - but this was a centaur. If anyone could understand, they would. In their own way.

 

"Moments." Indeed, Firenze did not sound surprised.

 

"Big things. Death, and heartbreak. Of other people. Nothing yet of myself. The future," he added helpfully, in case this wasn't clear yet.

 

"I know."

 

Gabriel looked at the centaur sharply. "But what does it mean?"

 

"Mean?" Firenze did look back down at this, brow furrowed with honest confusion. "You have been granted with a knowledge few wizards have, to be able to better understand the world."

 

"So... what do I do with that understanding?" Gabriel frowned. "Can I change what I see?"

 

"What you see is made of both choice and design. The universe has a plan, and in pursuing that plan it makes its children in such a way that they will play their part. To change it would be to change the nature of those around you, which is to say the same as wishing to change the tides or the stars themselves." Firenze spoke with a deep, calm simplicity, gesturing upwards.

 

Gabriel stared. "I foresaw the death of my friend's girlfriend. You're telling me I can't do anything to avert the futures that I see? What the hell kind of use is this, then, apart from to drive me nuts?"

 

"Wisdom for its own sake is a thing to be cherished. Wizards often forget this." Firenze's gaze was level. "Your friend, does he live on?"

 

"He does, but... hurt." And won't talk to anyone but Tanith about anything more complicated than the day's homework.

 

Firenze nods. "But he lives. Life goes on."

 

"He almost died trying to save her!" Gabriel almost choked on the words in frustration. "If I had foreseen his death, then I refuse to believe I couldn't have done a thing about it!"

 

"Why? You said it would have been in trying to save her." Firenze spoke slowly, as if explaining the matter to a child. "In that case, stopping him would have been an attempt to deny his nature. Deny his choice. For knowledge of the plan."

 

"Better that than him being dead!" Gabriel snapped.

 

"No." Firenze's voice was at last harsh, at last firm, and Gabriel took a step back in surprise. "What you see, what I hear, they are gifts. Insights into the mysteries of the world. I have heard wizard seers talking of how it is like a clock. It works, and you do not know how, but it works. A seer can open up the clock and see all the pieces inside. By doing so, you understand the clock, how it fulfils its purpose, even better. But try to interfere with how one of the parts work, and the clock will break."

 

Gabriel eyed him dubiously, anger fighting off any sense of intimidation. "You're telling me that if I stop Urquhart from bickering with some redhead I'll end the world?"

 

"I am saying it is not your place to do so. It would be wisdom from outside interfering with... inside." Firenze turned his gaze skywards. "I know it is difficult to accept. Not all that you will see will be so distressing. But pain resonates through the universe more firmly than love or joy."

 

Gabriel shook his head. "I don't accept that."

 

Firenze shrugged. "It is what it is, Gabriel Doyle. Acceptance is the only choice."

 

"What about prophecies?" he demanded wildly.

 

Firenze frowned very slightly. "Interference. But the plan continues. The stars still tell us true."

 

Silence fell, and Gabriel opened and closed his fists with frustration. Then, finally, the first, burning question. "Why me?"

 

Firenze looked over at him, dark eyes for once surprisingly comforting. "Watch, and listen, Gabriel Doyle," he said quietly. "Then perhaps you will understand the answer to that question some day."

 

Gabriel scowled at the ground. The answer resonated, but he could not help but dismiss the sense of Wilson's grief, Annie's terror, Tanith's pain, and he shook his head and took a step back. "No," he muttered at last.

 

"It is what it is. What the stars above say." Firenze seemed uncaring of his hint of anger.

 

"That's what they say, but I refuse to believe I can just hear it and do nothing about it." He took a few steps away, the frozen ground hard underfoot. "I have to be able to change it; that has to be the point."

 

Firenze turned to face him fully, moonlight gleaming off his sleek form. "That is wishful thinking on your part speaking, Gabriel Doyle. Not truth. You cannot deny what is."

 

"No, but I can deny that you're right." He stabbed an angry finger in the centaur's direction. "There's no point to just being able to watch. Plenty of people think the future's mutable - why should you know any better?"

 

"Why should they? Why listen to them simply because they say what you like?" Firenze shook his head, gaze growing sad. "I wish it were just the impetuousness of youth talking in you. But there are others who share your closed-mindedness - do not become like them, I implore you. They would twist nature for what they fear..."

 

"Maybe nature's meant for twisting -"

 

"That is what your Dark Lord says!"

 

Firenze's voice was thunderous on this last, echoing across the space between them and leaving Gabriel convinced this meeting would be overheard from inside the castle. He stayed still for a long moment, just staring at the centaur, whose chest now heaved and tail swished.

 

"I have to know more before I just accept this," Gabriel said, more quietly. But what he meant was 'I have to find another way', and Firenze's eyes narrowed slightly with the hint of suspicion.

 

Then the centaur sighed, nodded, and turned away. "You should return to your room, Gabriel Doyle," he said, voice now quiet, tail still with its agitated swish. "And watch. And listen. The stars above know the truth."

 

Maybe, Gabriel thought as he turned and walked back towards the castle, cold wind swirling around his ankles. But that doesn't mean that you do. And I'm going to find it out.

Chapter 31: The Right Stuff
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Chapter 30: The Right Stuff


 

"Wotcher, Cass." Nymphadora Tonks punctuated her greeting with the depositing of a large stack of papers on the desk which dominated the cramped so-called 'conference room' that would be the setting for the day's business. Sheets of parchment skidded out of the pile, showing pictures, drawings, scribbles, scrawled forms, and even a couple of maps.

 

Cassius Vaughn lifted his head to give her a baleful look, then his wand twitched and the papers began to reassemble themselves into something resembling order. "That'd still be Captain to you, Tonks."

 

"Yes, Cass." Tonks sat herself down in the chair next to him and leaned back, heavy boots resting on the surface of the desk. "So you drew the short straw, too, from admin?"

 

"I don't work in admin. I work in training," Vaughn bristled, snatching up the first bundle of the stack of papers and going through them. "So your commanders in field work wanted to get you out of their hair for the day and sent you to me?"

 

"That would be us. Both rejects." Tonks grinned cheerfully, hands coming up behind her head, chair wobbling dangerously as she tilted it back.

 

"Interviews are important work -"

 

"And wouldn't you rather be dealing with actual Aurors, rather than the wannabes we're going to have thrown at us?" she pointed out, nudging the pile with her foot. Three stacks slid off, one falling on the floor.

 

Vaughn stared at her until she picked them back up sheepishly. "It might not all be a loss," he argued, flicking through the papers in his hands. "Only three from Hogwarts - one Head Boy. Then one ML Enforcer, a dark creature hunter's apprentice..."

 

"...that'll be Duffy, he tried in my year and was told to come back when he had more experience. I think he's been working in Estonia." Tonks' expression flickered, and she ran a hand through her currently bright-pink hair. "Werewolf country."

 

"Good. We could do with people who have some concept of the real world." Vaughn set the papers down gruffly. "If we're going to get people on the beat right away..."

 

"...I still don't like that idea..."

 

"...you don't make policy, Tonks. I don't like that idea, cramming in training sessions between life-or-death situations. Sending them off half-trained. But we just don't have the manpower." Vaughn shrugged darkly.

 

"We're meant to be elite."

 

"We are elite. We'll just be elite with kids." Vaughn straightened up, dark eyes flickering about the cramped room, with its cold stone walls and high windows suggesting a prison rather than a bastion of law enforcement. "So we'd better make sure we have the best. Who's first?"

 

"Alphabetical. So, Cole."

 

Vaughn's heavy brow furrowed. "Old Daedalus Cole's -"

 

"Don't do that," Tonks said quickly. "Not the family thing. Not these days. Let's see how good the girl is."

 

Vaughn snorted, but nodded in acquiescence. "Very lucky, if her take-down of Alfonse Sneddon is anything to judge by."

 

"I remember an instructor four years ago who told me that being an Auror was one-quarter skill, three-quarters luck," Tonks said with a twinkle in her eye.

 

Vaughn grunted. "Can't imagine who that wishy-washy sod could have been," he grumbled good-naturedly. "Alright. Send her in."

 

Tonks, with a little of the characteristic relish she hadn't been showing in the past few months of low spirits, leaned across the desk and hit a button. For a long few seconds nothing happened, the silent room filled only with the sound of their breathing and of Vaughn rifling through the papers in front of him. Then there was a timid knock on the door.

 

"Bricking herself already," Vaughn muttered, then straightened up. "Come in!"

 

Tonks flinched instinctively at the barking voice which brought her back to days of early mornings and hard training sessions. "Don't break the girl before we start, Cass," she mumbled as the door swung open slowly, and in stepped Tanith Cole.

 

There was a confidence to her gait, Tonks couldn't deny that, even if it was hidden behind a bag of nerves. Nerves were fine. Nerves were normal. Nerves meant that she cared. The fact that she approached the desk unhesitatingly and extended a hand towards Vaughn first also suggested she'd done her homework.

 

"Uh, hello, sir, I'm -"

 

"I know who you are, Miss Cole. I'm Captain Vaughn; this is Auror Tonks." Vaughn stood to wrap her hand in his own, meaty grip. A flicker of a wince crossed Cole's face, before she retracted her hand and shook Tonks'.

 

Firm grip. Palms not so sweaty. Still in control. Good.

 

"Good to meet you." Tonks gave a grin to try to put her more at ease. It would probably be a literal, but unplanned 'good cop, bad cop' routine with Vaughn here. "Have a seat, we don't want to be on our feet all day."

 

The girl's posture was straight, but not too stiff as they all sat down, and Tonks took another moment to watch her. She was neat, presentable, as would be expected for an interview, but the minimal makeup, the dark hair tied back firmly out of the way suggested a lack of over-indulgence in her personal appearance. That was good; makeup in the morning was the first thing to go after six hours’ sleep between a gruelling routine. Creature comforts went out the window for an Auror.

 

Then there was her face itself. Sharp, not unpleasing, but more striking than pretty. Tonks noted this more for her own personal interest; it was undeniable that it was a man's world, being an Auror, and the more you could fit in, play by the men's rules, be seen as a man, the easier it was. Being an object of cat-calling and undue attention beyond the norm just made life difficult.

 

She was also small, but of a build which leant itself to speed, and to have passed the medical tests she had to be at least capable of keeping up with the exertions of the job. All in all, Tonks had to reflect, there were no immediate downsides.

 

But that was before she'd hardly opened her mouth. And Aurors didn't get to be elite by not being discerning in their recruitment.

 

"I see you've gone through all of the basic paperwork over the last six months," Vaughn observed, turning pages over. Tonks had only given the reading matter a cursory glance, leaving its evaluation to Vaughn; she would take on the other side of interview skills, of assessing the candidate solely in person rather than in writing.

 

Well. Except for one file. But not Cole's.

 

"Basic application requirements, sir." Tonks noted a mild edge in the girl's voice she couldn't quite place.

 

"Aptitude tests, medical tests..."

 

"And I've been preparing for the physical assessment next month for the last year," Cole finished, with no discernable pride.

 

Vaughn looked up. "You'll only be put in for that if you pass today."

 

It was a trick of a question, but it didn't stop the girl. "Yes, sir. But if I want to pass, it'll be a bit too late, then, won't it?"

 

Vaughn didn't smile, but there was a glint in his eye that Tonks knew spoke of approval. She sighed, and leaned forwards. "Tell us a bit about yourself, Miss Cole," she said smoothly.

 

Cole's dark, moderately assessing gaze moved over to her. "What do you want to know?" There was a hint of hesitation, of honest curiosity.

 

Tonks watched her for half a beat, then gave a small shrug. "Whatever you think is important."

 

A flicker of her expression showed she knew this to be a test, too. "I'm a seventh-year at Hogwarts, a Slytherin prefect. Herbology's my fifth subject after the required courses." Her gaze flickered to the papers in Vaughn's hands, and there was a little more hesitation. "I like art," she said at last, clearly fishing for something to say which wouldn't have already been documented by the expansive application forms. "Both wizarding and Muggle."

 

Vaughn raised an eyebrow. "Muggle art?"

 

A small light went off in Cole's eye, and Tonks noted the enthusiasm with a touch of approval. Nerves hadn't killed off any genuine emotion. "Wizarding art is all moving pictures. Muggle art is static. There's something to be said about capturing a moment, the feeling and importance in that frozen second, rather than trying to most accurately depict something physical."

 

"Do you think that sort of knowledge is of much use to an Auror?" Vaughn asked, and the girl blinked for a moment in the challenge at the question.

 

Definitely need to play good cop.

 

"I don't know," she admitted at first, then stopped, chewing on a lower lip. "I could talk about knowing how to analyse something visual, but that's a bit trite, isn't it? It's... an interest." She paused, finally flagging, and Tonks looked over to Vaughn to try to read his expression. As per usual, it was almost impossible.

 

Then Cole took a deep breath. "I don't think it's the most useful hobby. But I doubt you want Aurors who are just machines - who are Aurors and nothing else. And I... what I care about in art is the emotion. What's being said. What it means about life. Surely an Auror's got to care about life and what the world means to each of us, or why do we want to keep it safe?"

 

Vaughn's expression remained absolutely static in the way which meant he was quietly pleased. But even Tonks briefly wondered if her read on him was wrong with her next question. "And what does your father think of your approval of Muggle art?"

 

"My father?" Cole blinked again. It seemed to be the biggest display she would allow herself to suggest uncertainty. That wasn't necessarily a good thing. It didn't do to seem too in control. That suggested hiding something.

 

"Daedalus Cole, horse-breeder and philanthropist. And socialite of the pure-blooded circles." There was an intentionally provocative tone in Vaughn's voice.

 

"I think he'd be unsurprised as he paid for the tutor who taught me about Muggle art," Cole said at last, a bit more levelly. "But if what you're actually asking is about Muggle sympathy in the current political scenery, then I don't particularly care if he'd disapprove. He didn't approve of my application to be an Auror in the first place."

 

"You're second-guessing my questions?"

 

Tonks stayed silent. She was confident Vaughn only went hard on candidates he liked, to really test them.

 

Fairly confident, anyway.

 

"Am I wrong?" There was just frank curiosity in Cole's voice, but a slight edge suggesting she'd had to bite back on an intentional challenge. Tonks suppressed a smile.

 

Vaughn didn’t answer that. "And saying you don't care about what the pureblood world would think of your being an Auror and holding Muggle sympathies in the current crisis is a bit stupid, don't you think?"

 

Tonks dimly tried to remember her own interview, and if Vaughn had liked her enough to call her 'stupid'.

 

"It would be," Cole agreed. Oddly, the girl seemed more relaxed, if anything else, under Vaughn's onslaught. "At least, it would be if I'd said that. I said I didn't care that my father disapproved. I do care about what the pureblood world thinks, because we have to work for the good of every part of the law-abiding wizarding community, not just minorities."

 

"Those are pretty words," Vaughn growled. "Where'd you learn flowery bullshit like that?"

 

"A Splintered World, an article in December 3rd 1980's Daily Prophet, written by C. J. Vaughn."

 

There was a long silence as Auror and applicant stared at each other across the table, the former challenging, the second mostly calm but with the slightest hint of wariness suggesting she wondered if she'd crossed the line.

 

Then Tonks leaned forwards and clasped her hands together. "So why did you apply to become an Auror?"

 

A good question. A safe question.

 

Cole's gaze snapped back to her with a hint of surprise, and she relaxed a little more upon seeming to realise the testing was over. For now. "I had a rather sheltered life," she admitted a bit sheepishly. "Rich pureblood upbringing. Slytherin House. But at school I had a few of my preconceptions challenged... and decided to broaden my world-view. Did some reading. Saw how war and crime had messed up the lives of my friends - dead parents, arrested parents - even if they hadn't so much touched mine." She gave a small shrug, as if to offset the emotional edge to her words.

 

"I had a good upbringing, though. Money. Security. A better education than most. My family always taught me I could do anything I wanted. So I realised I wanted to use my advantaged position to... make the world better. For people not quite so lucky as me. Auror struck me as the best way."

 

Vaughn crossed his arms across his chest. "Why not be a Healer, then?"

 

Cole met his gaze easily. "I'm better at Defence than Herbology."

 

"Glory-hound?" It was a light accusation, but another challenge nevertheless.

 

Cole smiled instead. She seemed to be adapting to the gruff interviewer. "Aurors are the best. I won't deny I want to be the best."

 

Drive. There it is. That's the stuff. Tonks reached for Vaughn's stack of papers. "Scuttlebutt had it that you took on a Death Eater at Christmas. The MacKenzie incident."

 

Not the Auror department's finest moment, to be sure. But Cole showed no pride on her face as she nodded, smile disappearing. "I was lucky."

 

"Alfonse Sneddon was wanted for three counts of confirmed murder, five counts of Muggle baiting, and..."

 

"...and generally being a tosspot," Tonks interrupted Vaughn smoothly. Then she looked at Cole. "How'd you beat him?"

 

The girl shifted in her chair. "You read my statement."

 

It was an evasive answer, and Tonks raised an eyebrow. "No," she said honestly. The rumour-mill had told her all she knew.

 

Cole stayed silent for a long moment, chewing on her lower lip. "He beat me in spells even when I attacked him and he didn't see me coming. He was faster than me and more powerful than me. So I had to improvise."

 

Tonks raised an eyebrow, not unencouragingly. "Improvise?"

 

"I threw a car at him," Cole explained, almost apologetically. "But that was just a distraction. He knocked it away with a spell, but he couldn't do that and defend himself."

 

A short silence met her words, and the two Aurors exchanged glances. Vaughn, almost imperceptibly, gave a tiny nod, before looking back at Cole. "Some wouldn't call that 'luck'. Where'd you learn to fight like that?"

 

There was no hesitation. That was what made Tonks suspicious. "Professor Snape's an excellent teacher." She let that one be.

 

The rest of the interview went smoothly and much more by-the-book; questions about organisational experience were met with a decent prefect record, questions requiring self-assessment were met with a sufficient level of personal insight, and by the time Cole left the room, Vaughn's notebook was full of scribbles.

 

A short silence filled the cramped conference room, before Tonks looked at her superior. "What do you think?"

 

"I think she's got a little fight in her, and I think that'll get her in trouble," Vaughn growled, not looking up from his scribbling.

 

"Get her in trouble in life, or get her in trouble as an Auror?"

 

Vaughn did look up now, expression dimly amused. "She knows her stuff. She's got a bit of arrogance. That's a good thing." Finally, he gave a small, craggy smile. "And she took on a Death Eater. Slip of a girl like that. With a car. That tickles me."

 

"She didn't seem too proud of it," Tonks pointed out thoughtfully.

 

"Good. Strutting's not good."

 

"You just said-"

 

"Being good and knowing you're good's one thing. Showing off? That helps nobody." Vaughn shrugged. "I like her. What did you think?"

 

Tonks' expression held the suggestion of a frown. "Controlled."

 

"Is that a bad thing?"

 

"It makes me wonder," Tonks said. "That's all. You don't get wound up that tight without something to hide."

 

"So long as she doesn't get wound up so tight she explodes, I don't care if she's got secrets," Vaughn said.

 

"That's what I'm worried about," said Tonks. "But not enough to hold her back. Put her through for the next round."

 

Vaughn looked over at her with that calm, evaluating gaze she knew could see through reticence at a hundred yards. "Are you sure? The physical's just a formality, especially if this exercise regime of her's to be relieved." He nudged one piece of parchment vaguely. "You look a little bothered."

 

"I am. But not about her." Tonks sighed, and stood up, hands flat on the desk. "Give me a moment, will you?"

 

She was out the door before Vaughn could give a response, striding down the corridor quick enough to knock at least one young Auror trainee over. But Auror Tonks tearing down the MLE offices and sending people flying was not an oddity, and nobody looked up as she raised her voice. "Cole!"

 

Nobody except Cole, of course, who looked around with a bit of a start. "Did I forget something?"

 

She was less tense now, and Tonks barely needed her training to see the fatigue in her eyes. She stopped before her, and they stepped to one side in the corridor. "Didn't forget anything, no," Tonks said reassuringly. "There was just something I wanted to ask you."

 

Cole looked briefly suspicious, but squared her shoulders. "Sure."

 

"You know this other Hogwarts applicant, Tobias Grey? I mean, know him well?"

 

Again, a slow blink of uncertainty from the girl. "Did you read my records at all?" she asked dubiously. "Co-Slytherin prefect... the MacKenzie incident..."

 

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," Tonks pushed on obliquely. "And all of a sudden he wants to be an Auror. Why?"

 

Cole stared at her for a second, then shifted her feet. "Well. He lost his girlfriend, didn't he."

 

"Wanting to stop the same thing from happening to anyone else is an admirable goal," Tonks said soothingly. "But... in this climate... we can't have our backs being watched by someone who might run off after vengeance." Cole's expression flickered, and despite her sympathy, she pushed on. "So he's your friend. So you care about him. So you know him better than I can know him from a fifteen-minute interview."

 

"What's your point?" The tension in Cole's voice made it clear she suspected already what the answer was.

 

"You know him. You know what we want from Aurors. Clearly." Tonks wasn't above a little arm-twisting, the impression that cooperating now would endear her more to the interview team. Even if they had already made their decision. "Do you think he's doing this for the right reasons?"

 

Cole stopped, her expression flickering. "You mean, is he doing this for vengeance?"

 

"I think you know what I mean, Miss Cole." Tonks kept her gaze on Cole's dark eyes calm and level. She'd asked the question. No more time for games.

 

There was a long pause as Cole's expression twisted with the first outright display of emotion yet. That emotion being conflict, moving to guilt, before she finally drew a deep breath and looked up and down the stark corridor with a self-conscious air before she met Tonks' eyes. "No," she said at last, quietly. "I don't think he's doing this for the right reasons."

 

Tonks let out a deep breath, and gave a small nod. "Thank you," she said quietly. "We'll see how he conducts himself at the interview." The last thing she wanted Cole to think was that her testimony alone would make or break Tobias Grey's bid to be an Auror. She could be wrong, after all. Or he might account for himself well.

 

With self-awareness, vengeance wasn't so bad a driving urge. Without it... well. The last thing Tonks, an Auror for several years now, wanted was a partner you couldn't trust to have your back. Not if an opportunity for their revenge was dangled, or anything to push their buttons.

 

Aurors were elite, after all. And very often, the elite had no time for personal feelings.

Chapter 32: The Simplest Game
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The Great Hall hummed with energy, a vibrant enthusiasm and charge which bounced from wall to wall. The mood of the school had been slow to recover from blows of Christmas but today, a few weeks in, was a Quidditch day. Green and Blue vied for dominance across breakfast tables, and with a trickling of the early risers amongst the students ambling towards the pitch already, gloom of darker days appeared to be fading.

 

For the majority, at least.

 

Tanith forced some spring into her step as she wandered down the Slytherin table, obligatory emerald and silver scarf already stifling her with the heat of the crowded hall. "You all look like… shit," she declared cheerfully as she reached her destination and peered down at her three friends.

 

She'd almost said 'you look like someone just died', before recalling the accuracy of such a statement. The moods of her three friends had been rather challenging of late. Tobias' was understandable, and astoundingly he had been the easiest to deal with. Getting on with life. Improving, one day, one step at a time. Enthused to be distracted.

 

Still here.

 

Gabriel had clammed up on his visions since she'd brushed him off to Firenze the week before, but if she was honest with herself, mystery from Gabriel Doyle was no novelty or surprise. She knew that he'd talk if he wanted to. And she wasn't sure she had the energy to support anyone else.

 

That left Cal. Cal, who had nothing to complain about and yet was left the most miserable and distant of them all. Who didn't seem to know if he wanted to cheer or cry if Lockett was around, and spent the rest of the time in gloomy silence.

 

And Tobias wasn't talking to him. And as nobody spoke to Tanith on the subject, she had even less of an idea of what was going on.

 

Cal didn't so much as look up as she sat herself down next to Tobias, who just gave her a small, tight nod. Gabriel managed the weakest smile she'd seen offer him yet.

 

"Quidditch. Nerves," Gabriel explained with a short, sharp shrug.

 

That would explain Cal if he hadn't been sick as a dog for weeks already. But why the other two would care was still beyond her.

 

"We'll trounce Ravenclaw," Tanith predicted firmly, digging into the food which nobody else was touching. "That's a given. So, see? There's nothing to worry -"

 

"Owls." Tobias passed her a sealed envelope with the MLE logo emblazoned across the front of it.

 

Her guts went cold as she snatched it up immediately, only barely registering the unopened one in his own hand. "Why didn't you say?" she snapped, suppressing a shake in her grip.

 

"You were too busy haranguing us. I didn't want to interrupt," Tobias said. He managed a small smile which didn't quite reach his eyes but was definitely more genuine than Gabriel's weak effort.

 

"Let me have my fun while I dangle over the edge?" she muttered wryly.

 

"Something like that." He met her gaze a little hesitantly, and she gave him a smile back, that small one of reassurance she'd been using on him so often. But it seemed to work. Made him better. So she'd do it as often as it took.

 

"How do we want to do this?" Tanith asked, looking back at the now-ominous envelope and drawing a deep breath.

 

Two years. Two years of reading, preparation, training, studying. Of lying to her parents. Of training from Altair.

 

Of the dull ache in the scar across her back which sparked up, it seemed, only when it was very cold.

 

And it was here. Her fate, sealed in wax.

 

"Opening them is the traditional method," Cal grumbled suddenly, before getting to his feet. The agitation and downright annoyance in his voice were unmistakeable. "I'm going to the team."

 

Tanith watched him stomp off, and it took a few seconds before she remembered to pick her jaw up off the floor. There was another familiar, uncomfortable, bitter feeling at the back of her throat, and this one wasn't apprehension. It was hurt. "Did he just..."

 

Then she looked back at the others, saw the dubious raised eyebrow of Gabriel's pointed in Cal's direction, and the glare on Tobias' face. A glare holding a level of venom usually reserved for when McLaggen or Wilson had done something particularly offensive. Never something he'd thrown at their best friend.

 

Even when their best friend had casually dismissed what might possibly be recalled as a major turning point in their lives. For, of all things, a bad mood and a Quidditch match.

 

Gabriel grimaced, leaning forward. "Go on, then," he said with uncharacteristic quietness.

 

"I'm trying to divine the contents without actually opening it," Tobias said wryly when he looked back at his envelope. He didn't notice Gabriel's twitch at the word 'divine'.

 

"Open each others'?" Tanith suggested weakly, her own gaze torn back to the wax seal, eagle imprinted upon it seeming to be taunting her.

 

"No!" Tobias sounded shocked, and she looked over in confusion. He paused for a moment, opening and closing his mouth, then shook his head. "If it's bad news... I don't want to be the one to tell you!"

 

That was fair, and she should have considered it. With all that had happened to him, if he had been rejected, she didn't want to be the person to deliver that blow.

 

"On three, then," she said, and he gave a short nod.

 

Gabriel looked between the two of them as they counted under their breath, bodies stiff, faces white. "Bloody hell, it's like I'm foreseeing what NEWT result day is going to be like," he said - then sagged as he seemed to realise the irony of his words, burying his head in his hands.

 

Tanith only barely noticed this and Tobias didn't seem to have at all as they finally, with shaking hands, opened their respective envelopes.

 

"Office of the Auror Department... Dear Miss Cole... you have been accepted-" Her breath caught as her eyes scanned the paper, and she tried to clamp down on the surge of excitement. Perhaps it was something else. Perhaps it didn't quite mean she was in. 'Accepted' was just a word, after all.

 

...accepted into the new Auror pilot training scheme, initiated in light of current troubles. Your training will consist of a mixture of classroom education and learning in the field, where you will be partnered with a veteran Auror. In this scheme you will learn on the job, both furthering your own skills and providing much-needed manpower to...

 

She couldn't help it; a giggle of glee escaped her lips before she clamped a hand over her mouth - then stopped. Why shouldn't she be pleased? Why shouldn't she celebrate?

 

"I'm in!" she exclaimed, clutching at the paper like it was a lifeline. "Not even the physical aptitude test -"

 

"Well done."

 

Even at her least charitable she couldn't suggest Tobias' voice was devoid of sincerity. But there was a hollow edge there which stopped her mid-flow, and as she looked across at him she didn't need to ask.

 

It seemed the Aurors had made their choice.

 

"Oh... Toby... I'm sorry..." She was briefly unsure if she was sorry for his apparent rejection or her own display of victory.

 

He waved a hand dismissively, face as pale as it had been all these weeks, but his expression holding that stern edge of 'soldiering on'. "I didn't have the years of prep work," he said casually.

 

Gabriel shifted on the bench. "Sorry, mate," he said at last, then looked at Tanith hesitantly. "Uh..."

 

"Oh, for goodness' sake!" Tobias exclaimed, barely stopping short of snapping. "I'm not an invalid, this was a long shot, there are Enforcer interviews at the end of the month, and even if it made me want to curl up and die that still shouldn't stop any of us from congratulating Tanith!"

 

He turned to her, and she was still too stunned to react as he looked her in the eye. "Well done. You truly, truly deserve this." Then he pulled her into a firm hug, the first one in what felt like years to be not tinged with mind-numbing grief.

 

And still she felt guilty. "I'm sorry..."

 

He pulled back, hands clasping her shoulders and giving that small, lopsided smile she hadn't seen in so long and was so missed she tried to ignore the tinge of sadness in his eyes. "Don't be," he said firmly. "You've more than earned this."

 

Tobias looked back at Gabriel, who seemed a little mollified by this turn of events. "Now, don't we have a Quidditch game to get to?"

 

Slytherin won. Which was a welcome change, and sparked the rekindling of Cup aspirations. They were almost guaranteed to best Hufflepuff next term; now if either the badger or the eagle could bring down the Gryffindors, it would be nothing more than points difference to see them win the day.

 

And they'd won a lot of points. Urquhart's Chasers had been on top form, taking the solid tactical theory Ravenclaw relied upon and expanding it ingeniously, running rings around their rather inflexible opponents. Bletchley had defended his hoops with routine robust determination, and Cal looked to have put his foul mood to good use, sending Bludgers thumping along to cast perfect formations into perfect disarray.

 

But perhaps most astoundingly, Slytherin caught the Snitch. Fledgling bookies in the stands howled with delight at how this would throw the odds about even more wildly – though this catch had not been at the hands of Malfoy, but Saul Harper, who seemed to have taken over as First Seeker in all but name. Perhaps Urquhart didn’t want the hassle of removing Malfoy when he could avoid it. Perhaps Malfoy was as good as removing himself with his lower attendance in class. Either way, it meant for a more competent Seeker.

 

The Ravenclaws were remarkably gracious in defeat, Tanith conceded as she looked back. And there were an awful lot of meaningful glances in the direction of the Gryffindor stand as Slytherin thumped in goal after goal.

 

Perhaps not everyone was as jubilant about continued Gryffindor victories as the lions thought?

 

But whatever the Cup's fate, whatever would happen, none could take this day of victory away from Slytherin, and as Tanith whooped in victory along with the rest of the jubilant stand, she couldn't help but notice the dour Gabriel, and even Tobias with all his pains, joined in the cheer.

 

Come on, fate. Just a few more days like this. A few more days of sunshine. And all will be as it was.

 

She grabbed Tobias by the arm as the cheering began to subside and the jubilant team edged their way off the pitch. "We should go congratulate Cal." Surely this victory had to have egged on his mood.

 

Tobias froze on the spot, looking at her hesitantly. "I'd rather not," he said a little bluntly, glancing about the crowd uncertainly.

 

She stopped, turning to face him, hands on her hips. "What's the matter with you two? What's going on?"

 

He paused again, and she could see him visibly fighting with something inside. Then he shook his head, shoulders sagging. "Nothing," he grumbled. "Let's go."

 

She didn't have the energy to fight to drag Gabriel along as well, not when he seemed to have no interest in moving from his spot, and so the two of them wound their way through the crowds towards the exit. There was a tension in Tobias' movements, enough to make her flinch as she glanced at him, and so it was with hesitation that she finally spoke.

 

"I - I didn't realise you had an Enforcer interview, too."

 

Tobias grunted and nodded, sidestepping a gaggle of over-excited first years thrilled at a win. "Anything I can get."

 

"No more DIMC?" Tanith tried a smile, ducking into the stairway; the acronym had amused her since she'd heard it pronounced.

 

"Why?" Tobias grimaced. "There's a war. Why tie myself to a desk or go abroad?"

 

"You know international help will be-"

 

"It's not what I want to do." Tobias' voice was suddenly cold, and she stopped on the stairs, turning back up to face her. They were a way down the stand now, the bulk of the crowd not yet departing the pitch, leaving them far from the hum of victory. In the gloom of the overcast day and the thin trickles of light that were all which could make it this far down, he looked even moodier than ever, and his greater height on the stairs didn't help. "I want to do something. I want to take action."

 

A knife of guilt stabbed Tanith in the gut as she recalled what she'd told Auror Tonks back in London - but it was an easy guilt to deal with. Guilt about a justified act. For with that look on his face, this thunderous drive, could she really tell herself she'd been wrong and believe it?

 

She tried to find words for him, words to try to soften this edge of pain that had grown in his grief. But efforts died on her lips, and before she could find any worth uttering, he'd shrugged and pushed past her. "Let's give Cal his bloody congratulations."

 

The crowds were waking up and abandoning the stands by the time they made it to the changing rooms, so it was only when they were very close that they realised the teams had not gone their separate ways. Tobias picked up the pace, obviously in anticipation of some competitive fight having broken out in the aftermath of the match's result, and she hurried to keep up.

 

But when they rounded the corner to the entrance to the changing rooms, it was not a fight they met. At least, not a fist-fight.

 

"...not my fault you're too damn competitive!" Cal was practically screaming in Lockett's face, hands thrown in the air, visibly so angry that Tanith wondered if she'd be as cool right in front of him as Lockett seemed to be.

 

And indeed, she was standing her ground, not looking much more pleased than him. "Me? Me too competitive? You're the one who was trying to brain me with a Bludger! You're the one who was acting like he wouldn't talk to me again if we dared win, but expected me to be all lovey-dovey right after the match!"

 

Cal rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. A little too exaggeratedly, thought Tanith. "You're just going to make this a whole world of hassle, aren't you. More hassle than it's worth."

 

The combined Ravenclaw and Slytherin teams, who still stood watching, captive audience, drew back a little at this. Tanith couldn't help but notice Bletchley with them, and couldn't help but slink back a little to position Tobias between them, trying to suppress the faint sense of her skin crawling.

 

Lockett folded her arms across her chest. "Sorry,” she said, entirely unapologetically. “Wasn’t thrilled at the match result. Wanted an evening to get over it. ‘Too much hassle’?"

 

Cal gave a humourless smirk. "It won't end tonight. So, yeah. Too much hassle. Far, far more than it's worth."

 

"More than..." Lockett took a step back, then blinked hard, fast. Something screamed in Tanith's brain for attention, but she couldn't put her finger on what, so stunned was she. "Right. I get it."

 

"No, you don't," Cal spat, voice by now bitterly derisive. "But that's not my problem any more. As of this moment." Then he turned on his heel, and stormed off back towards the castle.

 

A long silence followed his disappearance, Lockett standing on her own in the centre of the crowd. A rush of sympathy, of pained understanding from Tanith saw her almost go to her, before the Ravenclaw shook her head and straightened up.

 

"Come on, Ravenclaws. Theron. We shouldn't dawdle here with snakes."

 

She turned towards the changing rooms at the same time as Urquhart stepped forwards, glaring at the Slytherins with a hint of embarrassment. "Hit the showers, Slytherins, nothing to see here." He turned to the stunned-looking Theron Howlett sheepishly. "Um. Good match, Ravenclaws."

 

There was much grumbling, but the foul mood or jubilation at the result had all been levelled out with the argument and break-up between team-mates. Nobody argued as the Quidditch players disappeared to changing rooms, leaving Tanith and Tobias standing there, stunned.

 

Finally, Tanith drew a deep breath. "Something was wrong there."

 

Tobias gave a grim nod. "That's not like Cal."

 

"No, I mean... there's more to this. I don't think he just broke up with Lockett over a Quidditch match." Tanith chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully.

 

He looked at her, eyebrow raised. "You mean, you think Cal gave a fake reason for why he might break up with a Muggle-born in these times, rather than saying the real one?" His voice held not the slightest hint of surprise and a small bite, then he snorted.

 

Tanith frowned. “I don’t think that’s it…” But her voice trailed off vaguely, and Tobias just shrugged.

 

"Doesn't surprise me,” he said. “Doesn't surprise me at all that he lied. He's not the same guy." Then Tobias set off on his own route, leaving Tanith behind in absolute, utter confusion. 


Chapter 33: The Only Way
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Chapter 32: The Only Way


 

"So, Mister Grey, we've been over your records. Very impressive, I must say. Would have thought someone with your marks would be going in for the Ministry." Sergeant Colquhoun of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad leaned across the cold, gloomy room which was, if anything, even less glamorous than the chamber Tobias had sat in for his Auror interview.

 

"I did. I had an interview with the DIMC. I cancelled it." Tobias shifted in his chair a little uncomfortably. He'd blown it with the Aurors over what they'd said were his personal issues. He didn't know if he ought to be more forthcoming with the Enforcers so it seemed like he had these problems under control, or to try to hide them in case they, like the Aurors, misunderstood.

 

Colquhoun looked down at his notes. He was an older man, clearly a seasoned beat officer. Where Aurors hunted down Dark Magic wielders and Hit Wizards tackled the most dangerous enemies for the final takedown, an Enforcer did everything else. Beats, investigation, dealing with any criminal who didn't prove either too dark or too dangerous for the other divisions.

 

But Tobias knew a wizard didn't have to use Dark Magic or be hard to beat in a straight fight to be a significant threat to the world. That was where Enforcers came in. Where he'd come in.

 

"Because of the MacKenzie incident?" Colquhoun asked at last, stroking a stubbly chin.

 

Tobias' shoulder sagged. Did everyone in MLE know about that? It seemed hiding the truth of his decision was going to be all but impossible if reports of Christmas had been circulated in triplicate. "It made me re-evaluate my priorities," he said in a low voice, trying to not betray his emotions with his tone.

 

Colquhoun nodded. "Seeing my girl get AK'd in front of me. That'd change my priorities," he grunted, and Tobias looked up sharply. Nobody had been quite that straightforward before. "So you want to get those bastards?"

 

"I..." Tobias blinked at the Enforcer. "I want to make sure that it doesn't happen to anyone else." It was a response he'd said so often, drilled into himself so much, that by now he almost believed it.

 

"Bullshit." Colquhoun snorted and stood up. He was a tall man, craggy of feature, and dominated the tiny room with its metal table and weak light with that simple move. "You want to kick Brynmor and Robb in the balls, or you ain't human."

 

Tobias' expression flickered as he looked up at the veteran Enforcer, and fought to keep his surging enthusiasm under control. "That doesn't mean it's my reason to be here."

 

Colquhoun watched him for a moment. "So you're just that altruistic, huh?" He folded his arms across his chest. "Listen, lad. You seem like a bright sort, so don't think you can run rings around an old dog like me. You blundered into that MacKenzie situation."

 

Control snapped, but not with the initial, surging hope that Colquhoun understood, and Tobias leapt to his feet. For once, his gaze was level to look another in the eye. "Blundered? Better than to do nothing like the Aurors did."

 

"And right you are, lad," Colquhoun said calmly, stopping Tobias in his tracks. "You weren't that smart about taking on two Death Eaters, but you're still in school. And I wouldn't expect to beat them myself. But you showed more balls than the entire Auror division put together." The craggy Enforcer gave a lopsided, deep smile. "I like that.

 

"Sit down." The instruction was curt, and it was instinctive of Tobias to respond to a command voiced so. Colquhoun looked down at him, hands clasped behind his back. "This is no second-rate organisation. You can't come crying to us just because the Aurors said no."

 

Tobias half-opened his mouth. "I..."

 

"It's not glamorous," Colquhoun continued, ignoring his effort to respond. "We don't prance around with dark magic or swan in at the end once other people have done the leg-work. We're there from beginning to end. From the most minor crime to the most vicious. When a husband murders his wife over a domestic, he's no wielder of Dark Arts, and it don't take a Hit Wizard to bring him down in a fight. But we're there, bagging the body and listening to him sob anyway."

 

Tobias watched the veteran for a moment to make sure he'd actually finished before he drew a deep breath. "I'm not lying when I say I want to stop this from happening to other people."

 

"And that's good. Or you'd be inhuman if you didn't feel that, either." Colquhoun gave a stern nod.

 

"Are... all your interviews like this?" Tobias had to ask.

 

Colquhoun snorted. "On paper there's no reason to not accept you. You're over-qualified. Material for Aurors or Hit Wizards or Unspeakables. So we'd snatch you up in a second, groom you for the higher ups. We know you've got the mind for it. We've addressed your testicular fortitude already." A lopsided, creased smile. "Just need to know if you've got the heart for it."

 

Tobias watched him for a few long moments, eyes narrowing with a hint of suspicion. The grey stone and dim lighting of the interview room were beginning to get to him, oppressive an atmosphere as they were casting. "And what hoop do I jump through to prove that?" He couldn't quite keep a suspicious tone from his voice.

 

"Lots of hoops to jump through. We like our hoops." Colquhoun's voice held a small note of dry self-derision. "Expect to be told what to do. When to act. When not to. And you'll be expected to do it."

 

"I can follow orders," Tobias said with a slight note of impatience. "I don't doubt it'll be different to a prefect hierarchy, but I'll learn."

 

"You want to learn? You want to be working until late at night patrolling the deadest parts of wizarding Britain? You want to be ready for days and days of intense boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror?" Colquhoun rested his hands on the table, dark eyes staring beadily at Tobias.

 

"I don't know about want to," was the honest response, "but I'll do it."

 

"Why?" The question came as quick as a thunder-crack.

 

"Because I want to stop those bastards," Tobias said, as levelly as he could through the blossoming, familiar anger.

 

"You could be a Ministry young riser. A high flier. Some big shot's assistant and protégé." Colquhoun's gaze didn't falter, and Tobias shuffled in his chair.

 

"That's not what I want any more," he managed to say through gritted teeth.

 

"Since when?"

 

"Since when do you think?" came the sharp response he couldn't keep the edge out of.

 

"Since you screwed it up and she got killed?"

 

That hit Tobias like the Enforcer veteran had punched him in the gut. He stared at the other man for a long moment as nausea fought with his anger, and gritted his teeth. "I thought you said you liked that I went?" he managed to say instead of shouting. Or punching him.

 

Who the hell does this guy think he is?

 

"Stupid things can still impress me. Aurors washed you out for a reason, boy." Colquhoun leaned forwards across the table again. "You thought we'd be easier?"

 

Tobias gripped his armrest, knuckles white. "No," he lied.

 

"We're not easier," Colquhoun spat. "We have no more patience than them for some kid who's going to run off and get him and others killed for vengeance. But..."

 

His voice trailed off, and the twisting in Tobias' gut weakened a little in that slightest, mildest, glimmering hint of hope. "But?" His voice sounded grating, harsh, even to his ears.

 

"...but we've got more balls than the Aurors do," Colquhoun said at last. "So we'd actually find out if you're a lost cause, take the risk in the first place, instead of just dismissing you."

 

Tobias let out a long breath, head bowing very briefly as tension swam in him. "Do you think I'm a lost cause, then?" he muttered.

 

"Can only find that out by doing." Colquhoun sat down again. "I like you, Grey. So I'll give you a chance in the training course. Get through that and you're an Enforcer."

 

Tobias blinked. "Easy as that?"

 

"If you think it's easy," Colquhoun said with a smirk, "then you don't know our training course. One month intensive physical and professional induction. Then you learn on the beat, with some old dog like me." The smirk broadened. "Maybe even me. You'll need a big dog to keep you in line." He leaned back in his chair. "Training courses begin end of February and end of June."

 

"I've got my NEWTs in June," Tobias replied automatically. "I'm in school until then."

 

Then he thought, and made the only choice he could.

 

The interview didn't last much longer than that, with Tobias emerging from the room in something of a daze once he had done, sending in the victim - interviewee - after him as he stumbled down the corridor. This, like all MLE activity not requiring direct communication with the Ministry, had happened in their large, discreet Headquarters on Canary Wharf, lost in and about the warehouses of the industrial yards. So for the second time in as many weeks he made his way out of the building, not really taking in much of the sights and sounds of where he would soon be working, things which would soon be familiar for the job he was about to undertake.

 

There was a preferred spot around the corner once you were out of the door to use for apparition, and it took only a moment to calm his nerves. A drawn breath, a moment's focus, a turn on the spot, and the air whistled in his ears before he felt the brief, faint drop of compensating for the ground in his apparition. Snow crunched underfoot at the impact, and when he opened his eyes he was, indeed, in the copse between Hogwarts and Hogsmeade he preferred to use for his magical travel.

 

He wrapped his green scarf a little more firmly around his neck, shoved his hands in his pockets and crunched out of the cold woodlands towards the nearby path. He was in no mood to try the secret passageway to the school he knew was hidden around here; it was over a year since they'd made use of it to break out to Hogsmeade New Year's Festival, and the memories alone kept him at bay.

 

So he took the route that gave him a good view of the path up to the school, and within short order could see a figure tromping along the same route, up ahead, on the walkway. Hunched over against the cold, weary if their steps were anything to judge by, but unmistakeable to his eye; it had to be Tanith, returning from one of her training sessions with Altair Ritter.

 

She'd always been evasive before Christmas about these trips. Always been vague on why she was out and about. And for the tension between them, he'd never pressed; for his own distractions in Annie, had never paid enough attention to defeat her excuses. It had come up fairly shortly after Christmas, though; something had to explain how she could fight off a Death Eater and get him out of that house alive.

 

His hand still ached occasionally with the memory of bones smashed in anguish and agony, and on late nights, he thought he could feel the throbbing in his flesh of the Cruciatus curse. It was one thing to see it; one thing for Professor Moody to show them, one thing to read about it. But the sense of it washing over him would likely be something else from that night which would stay with him forever.

 

So he picked up the pace to get out of the cold and into the warmth, hurrying along the path. "Tanith!"

 

He was barely a few metres away before he called out, but it was enough. He had to skid to an abrupt halt as she whirled around, wand in hand and in his face, and instinct saw him draw his own, pointed at her gut.

 

There was a long pause as he squinted, astonished at her reflexes and more confused now why she hadn't lowered the wand. "Sorry," he said sincerely. "I didn't mean to sneak up on -"

 

"What was the colour of the door to the interview room at Auror Headquarters?" Tanith asked sharply, dark gaze locked on him.

 

He blinked. "What?"

 

"You've just come out of nowhere outside of Hogwarts grounds. I'd be an idiot to take you at face value." Tanith squared her shoulders, and again, he could see from the ache of such a move how tired she was. "So answer the question."

 

Tobias sighed. Standard security practices like this gave him a headache. "Dark green. The paint was flaking. It was grey underneath."

 

She lowered her wand, but her eyes flashed as he went to lower his. "Don't be a fool, Grey, I could be anyone."

 

"But you're not," he said sharply, feeling the winter wind whistle in his hair as he spoke. "You're Tanith Cole. I know you're Tanith Cole, just by looking at you. Just by looking at how dog-tired you are. Just by the way you glare at me. Just by the way you chewed on your lower lip when thinking of a security question to ask me. Just by the way you say my name."

 

The words tumbled out thoughtlessly, true each and every one, but then they were there, as heavy between them a they would be if they'd thudded into the snow. Tanith stared at him, gaze hesitant and showing that wave of control all at once, before his breath caught in his throat.

 

"...what's my wand made of?" he asked at last, as much to diffuse the tension as to bypass that slimmest of slim chances that he was wrong.

 

"Which one?" The ghost of a smile tugged at her lips. "Your old one was an Ollivander's, bought when you were eleven, and it was mahogany and Pegasus-mane. Nine inches. Reliable, and good for Transfiguration. Your new one's a Dupont, eleven inches, oak and dragon heartstring. Solid. Excellent at protective spells. Bought by your mother in Paris just before the start of term." The smile solidified a little. "It came in a green box."

 

Tobias blinked, then lowered said wand. "Bloody hell, you do remember your trivia."

 

"I practice. It's good to hone your mind even on irrelevances." Tanith stepped back, and her expression opened up at last, with optimism and a hint of hesitation. "How did the interview go?"

 

His own grin came, with his own dose of doubt and uncertainty. "I'm in," he declared.

 

There was just the slightest flicker of surprise, and it was a surprise he felt himself - astonishment at the turning of his luck - before Tanith gave a genuine grin and stepped forwards swiftly, wrapping her arms around him in a warm hug. "Of course you are," she said quickly, firmly. "They weren't going to turn a genius like you down, were they?"

 

He returned the hug almost wistfully, holding her close for a long moment he tried to savour. Savour the feel of her, savour the warmth of her, because he knew soon he was going to be feeling the anger of her.

 

He wasn't sure he could cope with that. Wasn't sure he could cope with the fury of the one person who'd kept him sane in the past month - and alive. Where Gabriel had been distant, where Cal had been untrustworthy, where his mother had been a continent away and teachers not close enough to be confided in... there had been Tanith. Listening when he had something to say. Talking when he didn't. Then knowing when to just sit with him in the silent moments and let him know he was not alone.

 

And he was about to - had to - throw it in her face.

 

He pulled back reluctantly, stepping out of her grasp, and caught the flicker of concern from her this brought. "There's a training intake at the end of June, I'm guaranteed for that," he said, his voice tightening. "But... and... I'd have to talk to Professor Snape and Professor Dumbledore... I want to go into the training course starting in a month."

 

The flicker turned to eyes widening with disbelief. "But you've got NEWTs in June..."

 

"We're reaching mostly just revision time. And a lot of my courses require independent study." He was speaking more firmly now, more confident in the plan, the idea that he'd tossed over in his mind the moment Colquhoun had given him the dates. "I can work, and prepare for exams in my own time. I'm good enough to do that - you know I'm good enough."

 

It would be hard to argue with the straight O's he'd enjoyed in his mock-exams, or the extent to which so much of their NEWT courses had become encouraging of independent study. And if he could convince Tanith Cole of this, Dumbledore and Snape would be a...

 

"...you'd be leaving Hogwarts. To fight."

 

Her voice was cold and empty and even - was it? - scared, and his gut twisted. He hadn't prepared for this. Blind fury, yes, but... emptiness?

 

"To protect," he said, though the words felt a little weak to even his own ears. "To do something I can now, instead of waiting. They'll take me on my OWLs, I don't even need the NEWTs, why wait?"

 

Tanith looked away abruptly, gaze going across the snowy fields of the route back up to Hogwarts, and the wind whipped her hair in her face so he couldn't quite see her expression. She didn't seem to balk at this, and his question hung in the air expectantly, unanswered for long moments.

 

"No," she whispered at last, more to herself than to him. "Why wait indeed?"

 

He scratched the back of his head, taking a step along the path, as if to see if she'd notice enough to fall into step next to him. She did, but it was with a distant, mechanical gait.

 

"I'm sorry," he said at last, the words tasting bitter in his mouth. But he was sorry - sorry to hurt her, sorry to have to leave her, sorry she couldn't understand, because it would make the decision so, so much easier if she could. "If things were different... if none of this had happened... I wish I could stay..."

 

But he couldn't, and the glint in her eye suggested she knew that as she shook her head. "But it did happen. All of this has happened. And I told you before; if wishes were broomsticks, then Squibs would ride."

 

Her eyes turned skywards as they both fell into silence at last on the walk back up to the castle, and dimly, dimly he wondered if she was counting how many broomsticks she'd have by now for her thwarted wishes.

Chapter 34: The Road Ahead
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Chapter 33: The Road Ahead


 

The door to Professor Snape's new office was unfamiliar to Tobias. He'd gone to visit the head of Slytherin House plenty of times when he'd been the Potions Master, knew those dungeons well, as a prefect and a student. But he had hardly seen Snape during this final year, and he had never been close to any Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers. Mulready had been uncommunicative, Quirrell twitchy, Lockhart a complete waste of time, Lupin a dishevelled weirdo, Moody's impostor so madly unpredictable, and Umbridge...

 

...well, the last time he'd been to this office was when he'd refused to be part of Umbridge's goon squad and he'd had his prefect badge taken off him. It was almost ironic that he was coming here again to, ultimately, try and lose his badge. Just this time it would be willing.

 

Snape's curt tones instructing him to enter came almost the moment he'd rapped his knuckles against the wood, and Tobias turned the handle to step inside the dark, oppressive office.

 

Still. Dark and oppressive was much preferable to pink and full of kittens. And even Snape was preferable to Umbridge.

 

"Grey." Snape's dark gaze locked on him the moment he stepped in, the head of Slytherin house seated behind his broad, wooden desk. "I did not expect you at this hour. Sit."

 

The instruction gave no room for argument, and Tobias had to resist the urge to be scurrying for his chair as he sat down abruptly opposite the teacher.

 

"What brings you here, at this time of the evening? I thought you had patrol responsibilities."

 

"I passed them on to MacMillan. He agreed to cover for me; I knew you didn't have detention to supervise this evening, and in all honesty, sir, this isn't a discussion I'd like to cram in at lunchtime." Tobias clasped his hands together, eyes roving briefly about the room. There were no pictures, but the bookshelf at the far end caught his eye, and the names of books on Dark Magic theory and defence emblazoned along the spines sent a shiver up his own.

 

"I can spare a little time," Snape said in his clipped voice. "I suppose it is the least that can be done; you have admittedly done a... remarkable job with Slytherin House in the past four months."

 

Tobias bobbed his head, unused to praise from Snape. "Thank you, sir. But I... well..." There was nothing for it. He'd just have to take the plunge into the gloom, and pray the darkness wouldn't throttle him. "I need to leave Hogwarts."

 

"You have the authority yourself to issue such permission slips; if you did not wish to abuse your power you could have asked Riley -"

 

"Not the grounds. The school." Tobias inhaled sharply, deeply, as if he needed the breath to go on and wasn't sure it would come as easily as he’d like. "I need to leave school."

 

Snape stopped. Until that moment he'd had papers in front of him, littered across the desk and had been making minor notes on what looked like insignificant classroom paperwork. At this, though, he finally set his quill down and leaned forwards a little. "Because of Miss MacKenzie?"

 

Tobias swallowed and nodded, words failing him at this point.

 

Snape's dark eyes continued to peer at him, glittering in the gloom, and there was an evaluating air there which showed him just how delicately he balanced on the edge of falling into the head of Slytherin house's derisive pity. "I imagine the stress must be... remarkable."

 

There it was - that slightly mocking hint which made Tobias ball his fists.

 

"I'm not quitting," he said firmly, anger dislodging the ball of anxiousness in his throat. "I've been offered a place with the Magical Law Enforcement Squad, they have a training session beginning at the end of February. I want to join them."

 

Snape did lean back at this, realisation beginning to dawn - though there was no hint he regretted his misjudgement of Tobias' behaviour. "Enter the front lines," he said carefully.

 

Tobias nodded quickly. "I can't stay here, sir. Not while there's a war on. Not while they need everyone they can get. Not when I can..." He stopped short of his usual argument of making sure his tragedies befell nobody else; such sentimentality and compassion did not seem compelling arguments to use against Severus Snape.

 

"But why," Snape said, not seeming to care for the lost end of the sentence, "would you wish to abandon such positive prospects before you? Superb NEWTs. A position within the Department of International Magical Cooperation."

 

"The DIMC will send me somewhere else to pick up an ambassador's paperwork - at best. At worst I'll be locked in the Ministry doing absolutely nothing." Tobias shifted in his chair, now approaching the true crux of the matter. Leaving school was of no consequence to anyone but him; he was of age, he could do as he wished on the matter. This next was where he'd need support.

 

"I don't want to abandon my NEWTs," he said hesitantly. "I want to sit them in June with everyone else. But I don't think I need to be here between now and then to be able to pass them."

 

Snape raised an eyebrow, and Tobias realised that it was rare to see the man surprised. "And how do you expect to do that?"

 

"With yours and the headmaster's blessing," Tobias said rapidly. "I would leave school and continue my study independently. You know I'm capable of it, you know my grades are all Outstanding, I'm already doing independent learning with History of Magic. We're going to just be doing revision after the April holidays anyway, so it's only going to be a month or so of actual lessons I'll have to do by myself..."

 

He'd rehearsed this speech a dozen times in his head, but now he was here, confronted with Snape's dark, beady eyes, all coherency was fleeing. He scowled to himself as his voice trailed off weakly, before he drew another breath. "I can do it, sir. I'd just need you to bring it before Professor Dumbledore."

 

Snape gave the very slightest nod, but it was a nod of comprehension, not necessarily of agreement. He leaned back slowly in his chair, steepling his fingers before him. "And you will be working in the MLE Squad."

 

"Yes, sir," Tobias said, hands clasping tightly again. He'd said his piece; to push it further would doubtless just annoy Snape. All he could do was hope he would listen. Snape was, at least, fair - when not provoked.

 

"In vengeance for what happened to Miss MacKenzie this Christmas? Were you not aware there was a war on before this?"

 

Again, that lightly mocking tone, and again Tobias' fists clenched under the table. "Of course I did, sir, I'm not a bloody idiot," he snapped before he could stop himself. "And I didn't say that I should go because there's a war, or I'd think each and every one of us ought to go instead of staying at Hogwarts. But I have to go. And I'll go whether I can sit my NEWTs or not."

 

Snape regarded him for a long time as Tobias weakly subsided, the anger disappearing as quickly as it had arisen. He forced himself to say more; enough was enough, and now the head of his House would make his decision.

 

"If you will go anyway," Snape said at last, not moving in the chair, "then there is no reason I should not pass on your request to Professor Dumbledore. But, Grey, I would ask you to reconsider."

 

Tobias jerked with a little surprise, looking up into those dark eyes in confusion.

 

"You are a singularly capable young man," Snape continued levelly, "and have done more good for Slytherin House in these past few months than... many have in years." There was only the faintest ghost of a pause in that sentence. "To lose the first Slytherin Head Boy in such a long period before he has completed the whole year would be a blow."

 

Tobias nodded. He had not expected such a request from Snape, but there was no surprise which met his words - only the determined twist in his gut not to acquiesce. That these were perhaps the nicest words Snape had ever said to him washed over, as well. "I know, sir," he said slowly. "But there are more important things than school pride."

 

Snape regarded him for a few more lengthy seconds, and in the briefest of moments there was a flash of something approaching understanding in his dark eyes. But it was gone as quickly as it had arrived, and the head of Slytherin House straightened up, adjusting his robe.

 

"I will speak to Professor Dumbledore, but have no doubt he will wish to talk to you himself. I imagine before the end of the week." Then he waved a curt, dismissive hand, and any hint of closeness between the two of them dissolved in that moment.

 

But Tobias would not see Dumbledore by Friday, or even over the weekend. It was not until he was found by a short-breathed first year when patrolling the corridor the following Tuesday night that he hurried along to the Headmaster's office, where the staircase was already descended to let him in.

 

He had been in the Headmaster's office on only the two occasions before, at the beginning of the year and in mid-November, when he had been so furious at Dumbledore for what now seemed so minor and petty reasons. Since then he'd had only passing interaction with the Headmaster; as Head Boy he tended to work more with Heads of Houses and McGonagall as Deputy. Dumbledore was ever aloof, away from it all.

 

And this would very likely be the last time he would be here.

 

Tobias stepped inside as the low, calm voice ushered him in, and he hesitated when he crossed the threshold, closing the door behind him. Dumbledore sat behind his desk, as tall and distinguished as ever, blackened hand hidden under the folds of his sleeve.

 

"Good evening, Mister Grey," he greeted him, peering over the rim of his half-moon spectacles. "Please, be seated. I imagine we have a lot to discuss."

 

Tobias wrung his hands together briefly, then padded over to the almost familiar chair and sat down. "Not that much," he said a little weakly, "if Professor Snape has spoken to you..."

 

"He has," Dumbledore said calmly. "And he has explained the matter. Though I would like to hear your own reasons for such an... unusual request."

 

"Unusual, but not unprecedented," Tobias said in a hurry, and resisted to reached for the notes he'd made and shoved in a breast pocket. It wouldn't do to help convince Dumbledore with revision papers. "Six years ago Mortimer Holt was allowed to leave Hogwarts after Easter in his final year due to a family crisis, and sat his NEWTs anyway. Twelve years ago Elizabeth Streen received an offer of a work-placement in Germany for most of her final year and also sat her NEWTs..."

 

"I am aware of the precedent, Mister Grey. As you might imagine, I granted them. However, they are irrelevant to this case." Dumbledore leaned forward, gaze still piercingly curious. "Miss Streen partook of occasional study at Drumstrang during her final year. And Mister Holt missed only two months, not four - and he did not perform very well anyway." The headmaster didn't budge an inch as Tobias threatened to fidget nervously in his seat. "They are not you. I wish to know why you want to do this?"

 

"I can't stay here, sir," Tobias said weakly, though it was true. "It's not the memories, but I just feel... so utterly useless."

 

"There is often use in biding your time to be as ready as possible to act, so long as this caution is not just an excuse for inaction," Dumbledore pointed out quietly.

 

"There's nothing I want to do which would require my NEWTs, sir. As I told Professor Snape, I will leave school even if I have to give up on the past eighteen months of work. This is a mere advantage, not a deal-breaker." Tobias' voice shook a little, and for the first time he realised just how much the headmaster's calm, assessing air unnerved rather than reassured him.

 

"But if you wish such an advantage, Mister Grey," Dumbledore continued levelly, "you could at least explain."

 

"I did," Tobias said a little sharply, feeling his voice threaten to shake. "I can't stay here. I have to do something now, take action now. Make a difference. Change things."

 

"And you couldn't bring change in the D.I.M.C?" Dumbledore did not pronounce the acronym as one word.

 

"From afar. With distant strings, and... and I couldn't see what I was doing myself. Couldn't make a difference myself."

 

Dumbledore fell silent, still watching him, and Tobias began to chew on the edge of a fingernail. "I read the reports," the headmaster said at last, "of the night of what happened to poor Miss MacKenzie. I read your statement carefully. Of how you avoided the Death Eater Sneddon to make it to the MacKenzie house."

 

Shame filled Tobias and twisted in his gut as the screams of the Muggles in the street echoed in his ears. There were times, late at night, that they echoed louder than his own scream when Robb had killed Annie so callously. "I couldn't stop him," he said quietly, a little sullenly and defensively.

 

"Probably not," Dumbledore conceded firmly. "I read what it took Miss Cole to thwart him. Lateral thinking most befitting of an Auror candidate and not tactical planning you have yet been... trained in. I am sure that the MLE Squad would provide such training."

 

"What's your point, sir?" Tobias twisted his hands together, and again felt the anger. Anger was always easier to deal with than the pain because it meant he could lash out, actually do something about how he felt. And anger in this office was a disturbingly familiar emotion. He wondered how many others had stood before Dumbledore and thundered at the old Headmaster with the same righteous fury he'd felt before and felt now?

 

"I just wonder, Mister Grey, which perturbs you more? That you could not defeat two fully-grown and well-trained Death Eaters when they took you by surprise... or that you did not attempt to engage one alone in combat when you were as-yet unknown to him?"



Dumbledore's 'wonder' felt heavy with every word, and Tobias rolled his shoulders and straightened up, expression darkening.

 

"There are many things, sir, about that night with 'perturb' me," he said, trying to keep his voice level. "And none of them have anything to do with whether I should be allowed to sit my NEWTs in June if I miss the final months of schooling."

 

Dumbledore gave the smallest of small smiles, which still shone through his face and stabbed a knife into his red-hot anger, prompting it to wilt a little. "No," he said at last, calmly. "I suppose it does not. And to deny you the chance to sit those NEWTs would probably leave you forever wondering 'what if'. Just as, if you stayed, you would be haunted by the same."

 

He leaned over for a piece of parchment and a quill, beginning to write on it elegantly with his good hand. "There are many regrets in this world, Mister Grey," he continued calmly, not looking up. "But few are as vicious as the road not travelled. Far better, I think, to try and fail than to not attempt at all." He looked up, folding the paper, and Tobias' gut twisted at the piercing look, Sneddon's uttered curses bouncing through his memories.

 

"I will allow you to sit your NEWTs in June, after independent study while you serve with the MLE Squad. I am told yours is a great academic mind, Mister Grey, and perhaps practical experience will hone you even further. But when this war is over I am sure you will have greater contributions to make to the world than those you could make in the MLE Squad, and a Hogwarts education behind you will aid in that." Dumbledore's final smile at this was one of ghostly understanding. "It is such a shame when capable young men are thwarted in achieving their full potential by the world around them."

 

Tobias nodded weakly, sagging in the chair from guilty relief. "Thank you, sir..."

 

Dumbledore's smile widened, and he also leaned back. "You look tired, Mister Grey. It seems you cannot but come to this office and feel as if I have put you through a tea-strainer."

 

Tobias' mouth twisted wryly. "I bring this upon myself, sir, and I apologise. I see you so rarely I cannot help but work myself up on the few occasions something does bring me before your desk." It was unusual honesty, and he didn't know where it came from; but with Dumbledore acquiescing for the first time, agreeing to his request, for once he could see the hint of the kindly grandfather in his eyes that others had spoken of.

 

Dumbledore nodded, gaze holding the mildest hint of wistfulness. "Perhaps it would have been better if I had made myself a little more accessible to students such as yourself."

 

"Something, maybe, to bear in mind for the future, sir," Tobias said, careful to keep his inflection gentle so as to not sound so presumptuous as to be giving the great Albus Dumbledore advice.

 

Again, that wistfulness. "Perhaps." Another pause, then Dumbledore waved a hand very slightly to still Tobias when he went to stand. "You have my deepest regrets, Tobias, on what happened to Miss MacKenzie, and that you had to experience such a thing."

 

Tobias jolted a little, not having expected such a commiseration, and gripped the armrests of the chair. "Thank you, sir," he said quietly.

 

"It was a terrible tragedy and a loss to us all. I did not have the pleasure of knowing the young lady, but that she was brave enough to overcome the social barriers between the two of you alone speaks volumes of her character," Dumbledore continued, voice going somewhat more gentle, and actually genuinely soothing.

 

Tobias' expression flickered. "She was a true Gryffindor, sir," he mumbled weakly. "And I won't - ever - forget her."

 

"Good," Dumbledore stated firmly. "As to fade off into death, forgotten and unloved - that is the true death. I, myself, can think of little worse than to fade from this world and to have left no positive impact upon it or those I cared about."

 

"I suppose that's not something you have to worry about, sir," Tobias said without thinking, and blinked a little at the tiny flicker on Dumbledore's face.

 

The headmaster just gave another smile, this one a little tighter, before nodding. "You will need to step down, obviously, as a prefect and as Head Boy. I should perhaps discuss with both yourself and Miss Riley on who ought to be your successor for the latter."

 

"Everard's ten times better than Sharpe, and Jennifer can keep his pompous attitude in line better. Though you would have two Gryffindors in the top jobs," Tobias said, a little automatically; school politics came so easily to him by now that he could provide input without giving too much thought.

 

"I have selected first a Hufflepuff and then a Slytherin for the Head Boy job. When a Gryffindor is my third choice, I think none can accuse me of too much favouritism, no?" Dumbledore pointed out with mild amusement.

 

"They will anyway, sir," said Tobias with the smallest hint of wry self-awareness. "As for my replacement as a Slytherin prefect... not Miles Bletchley."

 

He hadn't realised he was so vociferously against the other boy resuming the post, but there was a twist in his gut as he thought of Bletchley and remembered their argument in the pub, and knew he would not retract that opposition.

 

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow slightly. "He performed capably enough in the role during your brief hiatus."

 

'Hiatus'. Tobias thought he much preferred that term in referring to his dishonourable discharge from the ranks of the prefects the previous year. "It's not his capability," he admitted. "It's the fact that you'll lose Tanith Cole as a prefect if you give him the badge. And she won't make a song and dance - she'll just quit. I promise you, sir."

 

Dumbledore watched him for a few long moments, before giving a slight nod. "Not Mister Bletchley. Very well. Do you have a recommendation instead?"

 

"Not Gabriel Doyle. Not Edmund Montague." Tobias' expression twists. "That leaves Adrian Pucey and Caldwyn Brynmor." If he was honest, with his distrust of Cal and his motivations at that point, the best thing for the prefecture would be to put Bletchley in place and give Larkin Tanith's badge. That would be the best balance of capable prefects, instead of one strong and one utterly untrustworthy.

 

But hell would freeze over before he did that to Tanith.

 

"It has to be Cal. I know you might think I say this just because he's my friend..." Tobias recognised, at least, that people would still believe this to be true.

 

"Your judgement has been sound and unbiased on matters of prefects before. I will trust it now." Dumbledore gave a small nod. "After consultation with Professor Snape and Jennifer Riley."

 

Tobias nodded, rubbing his eyes. "Then if you'll excuse me, sir... I have two weeks left in school and should write to the MLE Squad to confirm I'll be taking that place in March..." He got to his feet slowly.

 

Dumbledore stood also, and to Tobias' brief astonishment, extended his good hand towards him. "Good night, then, Mister Grey," he said serenely, pleasantly, as they shook hands. "And may you find the forgiveness you seek on the path you will, this time, be taking."

 

Tobias didn't allow himself to think too hard about those words when he returned to the Common Room that evening.

Chapter 35: The Last Time
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Chapter 34: The Last Time


 

Tanith stopped in the doorway of the Slytherin common room, shaking rain from her hair and her cloak and taking a moment to just dry off and warm up. This time of night the room was empty, the dim green glow of the lake only very mild against the torches and candle-light without the sun to bring the emerald hues of the water this far down. She’d heard some first-years describe the room as ‘creepy’, but it had never been so to her. Just closer, more intimate, than the probably-boisterous or overly sappy common rooms of the other houses. It wasn’t warm, but it was inviting. Tantalising. Like secrets lurked in corners waiting to be discovered, and whispered hints of their presence.

 

She suppressed a shiver as water dripped down the back of her neck, and shrugged out of her cloak, letting the warmth of the fires wash over her. Then she turned towards the nearest armchair –

 

And almost jumped out of her skin when she nearly walked into Tobias, who was standing just to the left of the door, tall and dark and mostly in shadows from the gloom this time of the evening. To his credit, he took half a step back when she jolted, looking intensely surprised himself.

 

“Bloody hell, Grey!” she snapped unthinkingly, lowering the cloak she’d briefly, pointlessly raised before her as a shield. Internally she cursed her reflexes this time; at the very least she could have whipped out her wand at the surprise.

 

Is that how you want to live your life? Each surprise is a threat?

 

“Sorry! Sorry.” Tobias lifted his hands both defensively and apologetically, expression sheepish. “I didn’t mean to make you jump, I was just up and waiting and saw you come in, and… I didn’t realise I was being so quiet.”

 

Her shoulders sagged, and Tanith shook her head. “You weren’t,” she conceded at last. “I’m just… tired. I didn’t expect to be out so late.” She glanced around quickly for somewhere she might be able to deposit her sodden cloak.

 

He reached out to take it, and she had to resist the urge to jerk back when, through grasping the material, their hands touched. But she let him take it, him still wearing the sheepish smile of before, and he carefully folded it over the back of the nearest armchair.

 

“I know, you’re usually back sooner,” Tobias said softly, looking down at her. “But I suppose if Mister Ritter’s giving a lesson…”

 

“…he likes to finish it. Tonight was a bit of an exception on timing, though.” She brushed water from her hair, and rubbed the back of her neck ruefully. “At least he got me some food at the Hog’s Head. Though it sort of denies me an excuse to come back.”

 

“And curfew isn’t good enough?” Tobias pointed out, a little guardedly, and she realised the mild agitation about him she’d noticed when he’d startled her remained. “You don’t want to be wandering around after dark.”

 

“I have permission for the Hogsmeade trips… and besides, I’m a prefect,” Tanith said, finding a sore spot on her neck which, she could feel, threatened to run down her spine beyond her reach.

 

“Even prefects can’t run around ignoring rules, whatever additional rights you might have.”

 

“I think the Head Boy might get me out of trouble. He’s a friend of mine, see.” She grinned at him at last, then gave a mild grimace as she stretched to find the knot of the muscles and failed.

 

Tobias frowned. “Let me see that. Sit down.”

 

The tone of voice permitted no argument, and she was exhausted enough to move to the nearest sofa and perch on the armrest without opposing his instruction. He moved behind her smoothly, brushing her hair away from her neck with a gentleness which made her shiver.

 

“You don’t know anything about massages,” she protested, but didn’t stop him when he set to work.

 

“Rub the sore spot ‘til it’s not taut and sore. Isn’t that about the gist?” There was wry amusement in Tobias’ voice, a wry amusement she hadn’t heard in a long time, and so the will to argue faded even further – even despite the faint tingling in her skin at his touch.

 

“That’s about – oh…”

 

“There?” Again, the tones of being dryly entertained, and she allowed her head to droop, shoulders to relax, and just mumbled something inconsequential and incomprehensible.

 

For long moments there was nothing but the crackling of the fire to break the silence, and she closed her eyes, lulled towards almost sleeping with the peacefulness, her raw fatigue, and the sheer comfort of Tobias’ presence that could not only come from the neck rub.

 

You told yourself this wouldn’t start again…

 

“How does that feel?”

 

His voice was a low whisper, enough to prompt another shudder, and idly she wondered if grief had driven her best friend completely stupid as she straightened up and tried to will some coherency and steel back in to her thoughts.

 

“Great,” she said honestly, then shook her head very slightly. “It’s great. Thanks. That’s fine.” She did her best to stop there from being any edge to her voice, not wanting to drive him away as she drew a line – especially as the line was far more for herself than it was for him.

 

“I bet it’s tiring, whatever training he has you doing,” Tobias said, and his touch drifted away from her neck as he moved to sit down on the sofa. “What was it today? Practicing falling? Your back’s as tight as anything.”

 

“Breaking out of someone’s hold,” Tanith mumbled, rubbing the back of her neck briefly, ruefully, feeling the warmth there and hoping her face didn’t reflect it. “So… lots of twisting about.”

 

Tobias nodded, looking at her for a long moment with his bright, piercing blue eyes, and there was a silence which hung in the air for what felt like a little too long before his gaze turned to the nearby fire. “I often wonder if what he does is the sort of thing we ought to all learn.”

 

“I think that would be a bit extreme,” Tanith said honestly, slumping down off the armchair onto the sofa proper. Inches stretched between them, inches she was keenly aware of in a way she hadn’t been since a different night alone in the common room a lifetime ago, before death and before Annie and before she’d been so stupid as to know…

 

“I suppose standard spell-work ought to do most of the class,” Tobias conceded. “Then again, the curriculum wasn’t exactly drawn up to cope with an outright war.”

 

“Most people aren’t going to be wrestling Death Eaters,” Tanith said, suppressing a yawn. She certainly didn’t want him to think she was bored – but she was still tired, and now comfortable from the neck rub and warm from the fire and lulled by his presence – and then sat up straighter to fight that feeling.

 

“You’d have to be pretty stupid to do that, huh?”

 

Tobias’ smile was quiet, sad as he looked away at the nearby fireplace, gaze fading into the flickering flames, and she could only watch him with a wrench in her heart, watch the grief tug at the corners of his expression, whittle away at the mask of control. It was always there, that sense of loss, that sadness, and she hadn’t seen the smile which could banish it since Christmas.

 

Certainly, it was beyond her power to do so. At least, for now.

 

“When do you go?” she asked quietly, looking down at her hands now.

 

“A week,” he said. “So I’m – I’m trying to get everything in order with the prefects and the Head Boy job. It’s very likely to be Everard who’ll get that badge, from speaking to Dumbledore and briefly with Riley, and the Slytherin badge will go to Cal.”

 

Tanith looked at him, raising an eyebrow slightly. “You think? Even with how he’s been acting lately?”

 

Tobias gave an exaggerated shrug, one which hid the lingering hint of almost disapproval which had been perpetual when speaking of his alleged best friend for the past few months. “He’s better for the job than the alternatives. Yes, even with his behaviour.”

 

Her expression twisted. “You know he’s been sneaking around at night? I’ve noticed him sitting in the common room and pretending he’s been there hours when he’s blatantly just come back in when I’m coming off patrols… I don’t know who he’s been getting past, but I haven’t wanted to tackle him at the end of a shift, not with… with everything…”

 

Guilt crept into her voice, but Tobias shook his head; nevertheless, there was a glint in his eye. “It’s not your job to act on suspicions when you’re off-duty. But if he’s been gallivanting around at night and bypassing one of the other prefects, I’ll have to fix that.”

 

“Especially if he’s going to be a prefect,” Tanith agreed quietly, with the whisper of a question hiding in her voice.

 

Tobias nodded. “Especially.”

 

“Otherwise it might have to be someone else.”  A cold fist clenched in her chest. “Like Miles.”

 

Tobias looked up sharply, eyes narrowing with more concern than suspicion. “No. I told Dumbledore not to; I think he’ll listen. It will probably be Cal. But absolutely not Miles.”

 

Tanith swallowed hard, not trusting herself to speak – not for what she’d specifically say, but more for what it would give away. Another heartbeat and she realised ominous silence had done its fair share of work in killing off any effort at being dismissive of the idea of working closely with Bletchley.

 

“…good,” was thus all she said, when she thought she could trust herself to say that single word without wavering.

 

Another silence, and she just managed to stop herself from flinching as his hand, ever-so-carefully, reached out to rest lightly on hers. “I never…” Tobias stopped, and as she glanced up he looked away, scowling briefly into the fire with the expression she knew spoke of irritation with himself. “I never asked what happened,” he managed at last, voice thick.

 

She couldn’t help herself; she laughed. It was a short, sharp, humourless and infinitely bitter laugh, a laugh of thoughts and memories she’d rather throw to the winds. “You’d be happier if you never did.”

 

“And you? Would you be happier if I just let it lie? Never asked?” Their gazes met at the sudden outburst of sincerity in his voice, and she blinked briefly in surprise at his fervency as he slightly tightened his grip on her hand.

 

“I…”

 

“Have you spoken about it with anyone? Your parents? The girls?” Concern rang through Tobias’ voice, and for the first time now she couldn’t see a hint of his grief in his eyes, a hint of his pain in his frown.

 

Great. That’s how you help him get over this. Drown him with your own problems.

 

She couldn’t help but laugh again, with similar bitterness, at the suggestion she might talk this through with Ariane and Melanie. “I think this would need a slightly more delicate touch, Grey.”

 

Tobias managed the smallest, bashful smile, and nodded very slightly. “Perhaps. But… you ought to get this off your chest. With someone. I’m not saying I’m the best person, but… someone.” His frown deepened, and the smile died a death in concern. “I’ve not been a good friend lately –”

 

“You’ve had reasons,” she exclaimed abruptly, firmly, for never in a million years would she want him to believe she thought he’d abandoned her.

 

He lifted a hand. “…but I have still seen how upset you are. How you’ve been bottling it all in. And I don’t want that; I’d never want that pain for you. I don’t think it’s good for you.” Tobias took a deep breath, and slowly went to draw his hand away. “So even if it’s not me, or even not Ariane or Melanie, I… just… talk to someone. Please. Because it’s chewing you up inside.”

 

Silence reigned for a few long moments, then she reached out to snatch up the hand he’d been slowly pulling away, clasping it with a grip that surprised them both. She didn’t look at him for those long moments; couldn’t, just stared at the fireplace and tried to find the will to speak from the grasp of his hand.

 

Because if she couldn’t talk about this with him, who could she talk about it with?

 

“It wasn’t… I don’t want you to think it was anything bad. That Miles did – did anything.” That had to be clear – crystal clear, or as crystal clear as such a fractured sentence could be. “He was just… he was stupid, and oblivious, and I let him be. I chose him because he would be…”

 

The words caught in her throat, and she felt a treacherous lump rising. Glaring into the flickering flames, she gritted her teeth and tried to suppress it. That wouldn’t do, going to pieces so early on in the explanation. He needed to understand that she would be fine, that she was fine, so he didn’t worry about her and could get back to picking himself back up…

 

“I was just upset. And thoroughly, thoroughly stupid. And I wanted to feel… wanted.” Guilt tugged at her now, guilt that she might inflict guilt upon him in a martyr’s circle that prompted a twisted smile she couldn’t quite fight off. “And Miles can be very biddable when you know what buttons to press.”

 

She didn’t dare look at Tobias, but could see the shadows playing across his face out of the corner of her eye, and felt his grip on her hand tighten a fraction with what felt more like aggravation than reassurance. “I can… understand that.” His voice was pitch-perfect in control, in sounding absolutely fine. That’s how she knew he was bothered, and Tanith had never needed lessons from Ritter when it came to reading Tobias Grey.

 

“He wasn’t what I wanted.” She let the words hang there for a minute, not for what they themselves said, but for gathering up the next few sentences so they might be… quick. Efficient. Over and done with quickly with the least pain administered to the fewest people possible. “Like I said. I was upset. And doing it for all of the wrong reasons. And so didn’t enjoy myself and had a horrible time and picked the oblivious man because he wouldn’t notice and he didn’t notice…”

 

Now the words were spilling out, and with them came tears until she choked on the explanation. She felt Tobias’ grip tighten briefly before she tore her hand out of his grasp and got to her feet abruptly, turning away and swatting at her treacherous eyes.

 

He let her, staying on the sofa, and she could feel his eyes boring into her back as he added up the words she’d said and listened to the ones she hadn’t, and when he did speak it was with a mixture of understanding and quiet, simmering anger. “He hurt you.”

 

“I hurt myself. I just used Miles to do so.” And there would never be anything more truthful about the matter than that, never be anything more apt than the declaration that she was stupid and self-destructive and Miles was nothing more than stupid.

 

She kept her gaze on the fire, with its reliable flickering, which wouldn’t do anything to upset or shock or let anyone down, and she definitely didn’t move when she heard Tobias stand. For surely he was going to go, leave in disgust, now he realised she wasn’t a wilting victim, she was an idiot, and why bother helping her when he’d need to save her from herself?

 

Then his arms wrapped around her from behind and pulled her close, warm and snug against him and fitting there with, Tanith thought, rather treacherous ease. She didn’t fight his grasp, didn’t pull away, but didn’t let herself sink into his embrace, didn’t lean against his shoulder and let his closeness banish all the tears and the pain and the ache like she wanted to.

 

That way, again? That way lay madness.

 

“You don’t have to… bottle it up.” Tobias’ voice was low and reassuring and she felt his breath tickle the back of her neck, enough to make her again shiver. “I don’t want to see you this… this… hurt.”

 

And she wanted to let it out. Wanted to turn to him and cry and scream and sob and let out every inch of hurt, and send to the winds every inch of self-control she’d fought and scrabbled for. First to try and keep herself sane, then to try to help Gabriel, then to be Tobias’ foundations when he’d been so lost and hurt, then trying to juggle between him and Cal and never, ever, it felt, finding time for her own suffering, which seemed so mild and irrelevant next to death and prophecy and shattered friendships.

 

“I do have to bottle it up,” she whispered back, with a good ounce more resolve in her voice than moments before. “Because if I open that bottle, I’m not sure I can stopper it again. And I’m going to need to.”

 

“You won’t –”

 

“I will.” She turned in his grasp, turned to face him and found herself again closer than she’d expected, jerking back for the sake of her own sanity so they were inches, instead of only a hair’s breadth apart. “Because who’s going to pick up the pieces of me? My parents, who have never listened? Altair, who wouldn’t know what to do? Ariane and Melanie, who never understood me? Or Gabriel and Cal, who are so wound up in themselves they wouldn’t notice?”

 

Tobias flinched as if he’d been struck, and she knew she’d hit the nerve she’d worried she would, hit the nerve which meant he hadn’t thought her words through to their logical conclusion. “I’m here, I can pick you up, just like you picked me –”

 

You’re leaving.”

 

She felt his hold stiffen, then collapse entirely as he took a step back, gaze shocked. Idly, Tanith couldn’t help but wonder if this was the moment where Tobias had realised that he wasn’t only going somewhere else, but he wasn’t going to be here any more, either.

 

“…in a week,” she continued in a dull whisper made emptier by his hands falling away from her. “And then it’ll be letters, and it’ll be maybe even working together in July, but it’ll never be like this again. Almost seven years, and never like this again. And I understand why you have to do this and I don’t in a thousand lifetimes begrudge you it, but you have to understand that this means I can’t… I can’t rely on you… even though you’re the only person in the world who could put me back together again if I let myself fall apart.”

 

And there, she’d done it. Again, she’d said too much, even when, this time, she’d been trying not to.

 

He stared at her with wide, shocked eyes and a dawning realisation of horror and guilt and a fresh pain, and though this was a pain he’d inflicted upon himself, the fact that she’d revealed it to him was her own punch in the gut. “Tanith… Tanith, I’m sorry…”

 

“I know.” She took a step back, which was in itself an exercise in self control. “And I forgive you. I just can’t… lean on you.”

 

Then she turned and bolted for the girls’ dormitory, leaving him alone in the cooling common room before he could respond – and before she could go back on her promises and her resolve and fall apart on him like she felt herself threatening to do every second she sensed his eyes on her.

Chapter 36: The Eleventh Hour
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Chapter 35: The Eleventh Hour


 

Technically, students weren't meant to wander the school at night. Technically, the prefects were meant to send you back to the dorm-room, and the teachers provide a deterrent. Technically, Aurors patrolled the grounds.

 

In practice, however, Aurors worried about the boundaries, not the inside of school. In practice, teachers could be avoided, and certain prefects, like fifth-year Talley, bribed to turn a blind eye. In practice, Cal was quite used to being out and about after dark.

 

Especially since the Quidditch match.

 

Talley was enjoying the latest in his boxes of Swiss chocolates that were his preferred currency. Gawain, Cal's hawk-owl, was one of the few personally owned birds capable of making the long flight with ease; importing such sweets was no difficulty, and gave him an edge in bribery. This only had one drawback; Cal could only wander the part of the school he knew Talley to be patrolling. Fortunately, the Slytherin prefect was quietly competent, and so tended to be posted at the outskirts, where the biggest trouble-makers would roam. Tonight, he guarded the route between the Slytherin common room and the Herbology greenhouses, so that was Cal's destination.

 

February was fading and making way for March, so the air was cool but not as biting as it had been for months now. A brisk pace and a warm scarf were enough to fend off the chill of dying winter as he emerged from one of the doors out of the castle and padded through the still grounds.

 

He chanced a glance at his wand as the tall gloom of one of the greenhouses eventually loomed up at him. Ten to eleven. He was early. But it would be safe enough to wait here, slinking into the shadow of the building - far away from the castle to avoid prefects, not near enough the gates to see Aurors.

 

And soon, he could talk, explain himself, and -

 

"You shouldn't be out here."

 

Cal started, almost leaping into the bush to his left as he looked sharply in the direction of the cold voice. He had heard his best friend being angry before. Had heard him disappointed before. But this damning accusation devoid of any warmth was new, especially turned in his own direction.

 

Nevertheless, from the darkness in between two of the greenhouses, a spot Cal himself had been headed for, Tobias Grey emerged. He looked taller than ever in the gloom, black robes mingling with the shadows, and for a moment Cal's heart thumped as loudly in his chest as it might have done had it been Professor Snape who found him.

 

"I..." Words died in Cal's throat, and he straightened up to face Tobias, folding his arms across his chest defensively. "Late night stroll."

 

"At this hour? Surely Talley would have pointed out that to be a bad idea. Against the rules, in fact."

 

Cal hated it when Tobias was sarcastic. Unfortunately, it was a definite weapon in his friend's arsenal, perhaps because it tended to be so utterly infuriating and downright patronising. It did the job of making his opponent unable to think clearly through irritation.

 

"I snuck past him," Cal lied badly.

 

"While he was stuffing his face with the chocolates you gave him? I'm Head Boy, Cal. I'm not an idiot." Tobias' voice was wry and accusing, but even in the darkness Cal could see he was holding his wand in what was unmistakeably a low guard. "I'll have to have words with him."

 

"If by 'words' you mean 'take his badge', don't do that, Tobias," Cal said, wearily but not without genuine pleading in his voice. The last thing he'd wanted - well, maybe not the last thing, but it was up there on the 'unwanted' list - was to get someone else in trouble for his own insanities. "He thought he was doing the Head Boy's mate a favour."

 

Tobias' expression was hard to read in the gloom, but from the shadows falling across his face it didn't look like it shifted at all. "That's quite a mistake," he said quietly.

 

Cal's shoulders sagged. Idly he wondered if he ought to be reaching for his own wand, such was the determination with which Tobias gripped his, even discreetly. "Yeah," he said quietly. "It is."

 

He would have been a fool to have not noticed Tobias being so cool towards him for so long. Since Christmas, in fact. This wasn't just grief, this was outright avoidance, possibly going so far as distrust. Possibly going so far as dislike. But with all that had been on his mind, with the letters and with Nathalie, he hadn't pressed it.

 

Didn't want to press it. Didn't want to find out why someone he'd once been so close to seemed to despise him. Blind hatred would be better than knowledge in this instance. Especially if this was happening for the reason he thought it was.

 

"So why are you out here?" Tobias asked at last, voice echoing between the greenhouses.

 

Cal's entire posture stiffened, and he could feel his hand creeping towards his sleeve, where his wand was hidden. "Going for a late-night stroll." So antagonistic was Tobias' attitude, he couldn't avoid a small, aggravating sneer in his voice. "None of your bloody business."

 

"You've been caught out wandering around after hours. During a time of heightened security. It doesn't need to be my business for you to be in the shit over this - but it is if I want to know anyway." Tobias' wand came up half an inch in a jerking reflex he visibly had to stop partway.

 

Cal's hand wrapped around his wand as discreetly as he could, leaving it under his sleeve. "Want to know. Going power-mad, Grey? Finding out just because you can, just for the sake of it?" The tension was prickling over his skin and running up his neck, and he unconsciously shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet.

 

"No. Not for the sake of it." Tobias gave an empty, humourless smile which was just about visible through the shafts of light from the castle which danced and refracted through the greenhouse windows. "It's not for the sake of it that I want to know why you're prowling around the grounds late at night in a time of Death Eaters and murderers."

 

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Cal said, smiling his own humourless smile in response.

 

Tobias straightened up very slightly, his wand creeping up with him. By now it was pointed at Cal's kneecaps. "I don't know," the Head Boy said softly. "I can believe quite a bit of you."

 

A cold shiver ran up Cal's spine, and he resisted the urge to draw his wand fully. That would just be an antagonistic move, if Tobias' attitude was anything to judge by. He forced himself to laugh, but it was a hollow, horrid sound which echoed through the greenhouses. "What, you think I'm about to wander down to the gates to open them up for You-Know-Who?"

 

"Of course not." Tobias didn't budge an inch. "The Aurors would stop you."

 

Cal couldn't stop his jaw from dropping at that. "Who do you think I am?" he blurted out.

 

It was the wrong question to ask, he knew that the moment he'd said it. It opened the door for all of his fears to be answered, for everything he had been hiding to spill to the forefront. For him to be confronted with that which he didn't want to think about... and that which he didn't want to know.

 

And Tobias' expression twisted at the demand, twisted in such raw anger the like of which Cal hadn't seen. His wand came snapping up at last, as if freed from restraint, and instinct saw Cal's own leap into his hand and be raised to meet it.

 

"I think you're a Death Eater's son!" came Tobias' thundering response, and although his wand was already pointed right between Cal's eyes, it looked like it took all of his self-control to not throw out a jinx right there and then.

 

Silence reined for several long moments as the accusation echoed between them, and Cal forced himself to lift his wand slightly, to move into a defensive guard rather than respond to Tobias' aggressive stance in kind. And when he did speak, he managed to force levity into his voice. "Actually, I'm the son of two Death Eaters."

 

"Don't give me your joking bullshit, Cal," Tobias snapped, and Cal realised too late that the levity had sounded dismissive, antagonistic. "I know that you ran into Idaeus Robb that night in the Peak District. I know it was him you were exchanging letters with when term started, and by proxy - or maybe later directly - with your father."

 

Cal took a step back, chest suddenly tight, but he didn't trust Tobias' rage at this point enough to let his wand drop. And indeed, his one-time friend carried on, expression thunderous. "I know you fed them all sorts of information about Hogwarts, about who's who! 'A war of hearts and minds', that's what your father said. And they were attacking hearts and minds when they murdered Annie, after you painted the world's biggest bull’s-eye on her!"

 

He was shouting by now, and Cal thought his words had to be reaching the school, that everyone had to be able to hear his accusations. That surely everyone would descend from the towers to condemn him for what he had done.

 

And he'd deserve it.

 

"I didn't know what they had planned," Cal said in a whisper which was almost lost in the echoing of Tobias' shouting, and his wand drooped a little. "I didn't tell them about the defences, I didn't tell them about security, I didn't..."

 

"No, why bother when they can kill people outside of school? Why bother, when you didn't know enough about the defences which might be of use to them?" Tobias snarled, taking a quick step forward to make up for the ground Cal had given. His own wand didn't waver.

 

"I wasn't trying to help them!" Cal snapped desperately, wand now dropping fully. "I wasn't... I didn't know he'd use the information about Annie! I only made one blasted comment anyway, one throwaway bloody line, I didn't think it mattered!"

 

Tobias looked like he might hex him right there and then. "Didn't think it mattered you were corresponding with a Death Eater?"

 

"Didn't think it mattered I was talking to my father!"

 

The confession spilled out in his own bellow, ricocheting off the greenhouses, and surely the world would know that, too, know of that shame. Tobias did falter at that, or he was so angry by now his wand was shaking; it was difficult to tell.

 

Cal drew a deep, unsteady breath, and let his wand drop by his side. "In the Peaks, I apparated almost on top of Robb," he said in a much quieter voice, without any steadiness to it at all. The words felt like they didn't fit in his mouth properly, so long was it that he'd suppressed them - suppressed thinking about them, let alone avoided saying them.

 

"He was doing some... ritual to antagonise the were-creatures. To get them to cause chaos for the Ministry. He recognised me almost immediately. How couldn't he? I look so much like Thanatos." Bitterness crept in there, but as he looked at Tobias, he saw no pity in his friend's gaze, just coldness - and a hint of curious hesitation.

 

"He didn't hurt me. In fact, he explained what was going on. Shielded me from the nearby were-creatures. Then sent me on my way. Of course, I told the Aurors the bloody second I got there where he was and what he'd been doing, didn't I?" Cal resisted the urge to wring his hands together, but only because, with Tobias still looking at him like that, he didn't want to put his wand away.

 

"Then he wrote to me, right before school. A real in-depth letter laden with... well, looking back now, it was Death Eater propaganda. But it made sense at the time - I mean, it wasn't about 'let's kill Muggles because they're different'. It was why they hated Muggle-born, why they wanted to keep pure-blooded magical society." Cal gave a soft snort. "It was the same bullshit I threw at you that first night. 'Course, looking back, it's just as much rubbish as anything else. Some Death Eaters are just crackpot evil, but most of them have some reason for what they're doing. Doesn't stop them from being bigoted, murderous fucks.

 

"That took me only a little while to figure out, and I wrote back to Robb basically telling him to sod off. That I wasn't interested, that I'd never join You-Know-Who, that I didn't care if this was what my father believed."

 

Cal dropped his gaze, rubbing his eyes briefly with his free hand. Tobias had still not moved in any of this, bright eyes beady and wary. "Then my father sent the next letter. Saying he didn't mind if I didn't follow him, but he was doing what he did for me, anyway, for a better world for his son, and that he was proud that I was so loyal to that which I'd been taught and wasn't just running off after him because he'd said a few nice things. And - and he asked how I was doing at school, and... and what I was up to, and..."

 

He shook his head, scowling at the ground briefly before he looked up. "And I told him. And down the line I mentioned you, and that you were Head Boy... and that you were going out with - I only gave Annie's name, I didn't even say she was Muggle-born, they must have figured that out themselves and thought she'd be a good target to go for!"

 

Then his words died, and he didn't have any more to give - needed more space, more air, more time before attempting to explain his endless guilt to the implacable and still motionless form of Tobias, who just stood in the gloom like a dark statue of judgement.

 

It took several long moments before words were finally found again - but these were Tobias' words, uttered slowly. "And what about Lockett?"

 

Cal blinked. This wasn't what he'd expected. "What about Nat?"

 

"You didn't just break up with her because of a Quidditch match." Tobias' voice was still dark, still unfriendly, but at last it held, just barely, the slightest hint of hesitation.

 

"No." Cal wiped his eyes briefly. "I didn't." There was a faint, faint pause, before he snorted. "Give me a little credit, Tobias - if I were an evil Death Eater in training, I wouldn't have gone out with her in the first place, so I wouldn't have needed a transparent reason to break up with her!"

 

Finally there flickered a suggestion of doubt across Tobias' face to match the hesitation in his voice, and his wand lowered just the slightest fraction. "Then why?" he asked, obviously trying to keep his voice cold but not entirely succeeding.

 

"Because I didn't want her to be a target like Annie!" Cal exclaimed. "If my father and Robb saw an off-handed mention of a Muggle-born going out with the half-blood Head Boy as reason for murder, then surely they'd see any Muggle-born I was seeing as someone to be killed!" He swallowed hard, trying to keep eye-contact with Tobias, hunting for any further cracks in his armour of grief and fury. "I didn't realise how deep I was in until Annie. I swear."

 

A long silence met his words of Tobias' wand not lowering, but the doubt that had crossed his face made the mask flicker and die. No more was there the cold distance, the near-hatred of before - but there was absolute disdain in there.

 

"Then you're an idi