Chapter 6 : December 31st, 1995 – Sixth Year
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“What time is it?” a voice hissed across the Slytherin Common Room, when all was dark and apparently empty. Silence had hung in the air before the whisper had broken it, taut and heavy in this dungeon chamber under the lake that was the home of Hogwarts’ most… controversial house.
“About nine o’ clock, Cal. If you want to go, you’d probably best head off now. Even though I’ve made my opinion perfectly clear,” another voice replied, and the speaker propped himself up on his elbow where he was sitting on a sofa at a corner near one of the larger windows.
Cal, who had been perched on a small armchair now bathed in moonlight from the enchanted view the windows gave, nodded. “Before everyone else gets back, I think.”
Tobias snorted. “They won’t be back for at least an hour. There’s hardly anyone left in the school; they all had the sense to go home for Christmas and New Year’s, not like us poor fools, stuck for weeks to come on our own, alone in this giant, roomy, draughty common room…”
“Hardly weeks. Days left, maybe. At worst.” Tanith shrugged. “We’ve done alright. Did you honestly want Montague underfoot at Christmas? That would really encourage festive cheer, I’m bloody sure. We’re better off on our own.”
Tobias looked over at his two friends. I guess we’re fortunate our occupied Christmases landed on the same year?” He smiled sheepishly. “It is better to spend the festive season with you, for once. After all, we’re our own family…”
“If you’re suggesting something, Toby…” Cal winced as a sofa cushion hurtled out of the darkness to hit him in the face, and he let out a brief chuckle. “Touchy about this, aren’t you? Getting a little too fond of friends for your own good?”
An uncomfortable silence met these words, and Cal shifted slightly. It was just as well the darkness hid expressions, in addition to allowing the enchanted moonlight to play delicately across the rugs on the floor. It meant he could observe the picturesque scene and pretend he hadn’t said the wrong word in front of just the wrong people.
“It was just you two who had things on,” Tanith said quietly at last. “Altair isn’t at home. Evadne’s god-knows-where. I prefer to spend the holiday season with my friends than my parents, if at all possible.” Tanith shrugged. “They don’t care, I’m sure.”
Another silence met her words, this time filled with a discomfort that was quite different. Cal sighed deeply. “Shall we go, then? Before we grow any grey hairs?” he asked slowly, laboriously.
Tanith sat up. “Yeah,” she said heavily. “Let’s.”
Tobias squirmed as the other two stood. “This isn’t a good idea. I mean, really not. What if we get caught? Sneaking out of grounds late at night? We’ll be expelled! Umbridge has already taken over most of the disciplinary actions around school! We’ll be accused of… of… heading out to…” His voice trailed off wearily, and it was clear he could not quite find an outrageous charge to be levelled at them which would prove his point.
“So we won’t get caught,” Cal said promptly as he and Tanith grabbed Tobias by the elbows and practically hauled him upright. “Come on, Perfect Prefect. You can keep an eye on us, make sure we don’t do anything too outrageous. You love to lecture us, we know… now we’re allowing you!”
“Tanith’s a prefect too!” Tobias protested weakly, allowing himself to be dragged towards the door. “You’re not mocking her!”
“I’m not that dumb,” Cal said simply.
“And I’m not a perfect prefect, Mister-Future-Head-Boy. I’m perfect at other things, mind, but not prefecting,” Tanith said easily, smirking as they stepped down the stairs and out of the common room, into the dark corridors. “Which way did Van Roden say the doorway was, again?”
“This way,” Tobias said unwillingly, and they turned left, further into the darkness. “And I’m not going to be Head Boy. Dumbledore won’t make a Slytherin Head Boy for another ten years! He’s not that stupid, not with all that’s been happening lately…”
“…and his Gryffindor bias must be taken into account. Oh, Riley will make Head Girl, no doubt about it. Chang’s bloody unhinged, I’m… well, me, and Grahams is too lazy. But neither Everard or Sharpe will make Head Boy,” Tanith told him with quiet certainty.
“No. It’ll be the new Hufflepuff Golden Boy, O’Neal. And I’m fine with that,” Tobias told them flatly. “Besides, I’ll definitely not make Head Boy if we get expelled here for sneaking out. Umbridge will have our bloody heads, and Professor Snape won’t be able to stop her, even if he’d want to!”
“Stop panicking,” Tanith said calmly. “You’re turning into a gibbering wreck.”
“Umbridge will be in the Main Hall with everyone else,” Cal continued irritably. “Tanith’s right. Stop being such a pansy and help us find this hidden doorway. Come on, the Hogsmeade New Year’s Festival starts at nine-thirty, and though we’d do well to sneak in with the crowds, arriving too late will only draw attention to us.” He was tapping walls with his wand by now as they walked slowly through the gloom of the corridors.
“I’m not being a ‘pansy’,” Tobias retorted scathingly. “I’d just rather not get kicked out of here. I’m rather fond of this school, and I’d like my career plans to not be ruined before they begin, thank you very bloody much.” He shook his head. “Umbridge could be anywhere. She’s scary and paranoid and expects us to pull stunts like this. She might even be lurking around the next corner…!”
His ramble came to a halt when, from around the aforementioned corner, a dark shape emerged. Tobias had clearly been successful in whipping Tanith and Cal up into a mild panic over Umbridge despite their words, for they all leapt into the air as one, jumping practically out of their skins.
Of course, it took them only a second to realise that the shape was too large to be the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher; too tall, and not podgy enough. For one panicked moment Tobias feared it might be Snape, and then sanity kicked in enough for him to recognise the new arrival.
“Gabriel, you git!” Cal was already stammering. “You scared the living daylights out of us! Tobias here had us practically convinced you were Umbridge, out on an expelling spree!”
Gabriel gave Tobias a wry look, raising an eyebrow at him. “Thank you, Tobias. It’s nice to know that I am so similar in appearance to an overgrown toad. I’ll be sure to put that on any job applications I ever write.”
Tobias shifted his feet slightly with embarrassment. “There is a small chance I might have panicked and we may have all overreacted.”
“A small chance?” Tanith mumbled, then focused on Gabriel. “Doyle, you said you’d meet us down there. Why are you here?”
“My alternative exit didn’t quite work. Filch is on watch. Everyone else is up in the Great Hall, though, so this route should work. I found it, by the way. My brother told me about it when I first came here – how do you think I’ve been escaping for walks all these years?” Gabriel asked, raising an eyebrow at her.
“Fair enough,” Tobias said, nodding. “Let’s just go. I’ll feel better once we’re out of here. They won’t look for us once we’re in Hogsmeade – it’s just getting there which is going to give me ulcers.” He shifted his feet slightly. “I’d still rather not get expelled.”
“You know, we all would, so stop repeating it,” Tanith rebuked him, and turned to Gabriel. “Now, Doyle, stop wittering on and take us down to the exit. Or Grey is right and we will get caught. Forget expelling, Dad would kill me if we were found wandering around out of grounds. You know how paranoid he gets.”
Tobias glanced at her as Gabriel nodded and began to lead them down a smaller, side-corridor. “I thought you kept saying your father didn’t generally give a damn what you did as long as you didn’t bother him?”
“That’s the point. It would bother him.” Tanith eyed Tobias. “And, well, he thinks that we might get attacked by Death Eaters. He actually thinks the rumours of You-Know-Who being back are true. Delusional old fool. He hasn’t quite worked out that Potter’s a mad nutter who’s seen probably a few too many Bludgers to the head.”
“Some people are just too willing to encourage panic. They seem to get some sort of malicious kick out of it. Can’t they just acknowledge that he’s dead and that we don’t need a bogeyman in our lives anymore?” Cal asked, shaking his head.
“Here.” Gabriel interrupted them by coming to a halt. “This is it.”
The statue he had found them, of some aged wizard even Tobias was at a loss to identify, did indeed slide open and aside when the wand was tweaked. Moving suspiciously silently and easily, the statue – or door? – turned out to have been hiding a long, dark passageway with no obvious end or light in sight.
“Erm… Gabe? Are you sure that this is it?” Cal asked nervously, gripping his wand as he stared into the endless gloom that was their supposed path to freedom, Hogsmeade and the New Year’s Festival.
“Quite sure,” Gabriel replied, though he, too, was gripping his wand and giving the darkness his own dubious expression. “Menelaus wouldn’t have lied to me, I’m sure. Not about something like this. He had to be using some secret passageway at some point, anyway. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.”
“Maybe your brother was pulling your leg and trying to lure you into some werewolf’s den?” Tobias asked innocently as he took a tentative step forwards into the gloom of the passageway.
“Or maybe the road to Hogsmeade isn’t easy and you should all stop being scaredy-cats… and we should get a move on. Unless you want to wait for Filch – or worse, Umbridge – to saunter along casually and catch us?” Tanith snapped, pushing past Tobias and stepping into the darkness.
The others exchanged dubious glances before following her into the passageway. Gabriel tapped his wand and mumbled “Lumos!” under his breath before sliding the statue shut behind them, leaving them with only forwards as a potential direction.
Tobias swore as he cast the light spell as well. “Gabe, that door had better open on our way back, or I will kill you,” he mumbled warningly, looking distinctly disgruntled but falling into step behind Tanith regardless.
“Don’t you trust me, Grey?” Gabriel asked innocently. There was a pause. “Actually, don’t answer, you miserable cretins.”
The passageway was less foreboding by wand-light. The Slytherins didn’t exactly have much experience with secret passageways at varying points around the school which they knew existed, and so this one was probably a suitable introduction for it. No jagged rocks or uneven walkway underfoot threatened; the walls were smooth, the floor tiled. It was a surprisingly civilised passageway, and with Tanith in the front to scare/mutilate/mock any would-be assailants or disciplining teachers, they began to feel even quite good about the trip.
“Talking about werewolves and Umbridge, Tobias,” Cal started, after a minute or two of silence. “I bet you now agree with me in wishing Professor Lupin had come back to teach Defence, instead of that Ministry-whipped old hag boring us out of our minds.”
Tobias sighed. It was a discussion that they had had often before, neither of them changing their stance. “I’d rather be bored to death than mauled to death, Cal, as I said last time.”
Cal mimicked the sigh. “You’re still going to be closed-minded about this, then, you smart-arsed git?” Though the words were said affectionately, there was still a hint of reproach in there.
“I am not being closed-minded,” Tobias replied evenly. “I liked Professor Lupin, and had only the highest respect for him. I do not in any way think less of the man for his unfortunate status as a werewolf. He was a good teacher.”
“A good teacher you respect, but don’t want to see teaching?” Cal challenged provocatively.
“I won’t drag out the pitchforks for Professor Lupin, nor shall I call him a monster. But I’ve read a lot about werewolves. Come a full moon, that cheerful, polite professor turns into what can only be described as a monster. No recognition of anyone. No control. Just a raging desire for death.” Tobias grimaced. “And then I can call him a monster, because he’s not then Remus Lupin anymore. He’s something so dangerous it shouldn’t be around the school.”
“Dumbledore took loads of precautions; the old man’s not stupid…” Cal argued weakly.
“Dumbledore’s too trusting,” Tanith interrupted from the front. “And I’m sorry, Cal, but I agree with Tobias on this one. It only needs to happen once, and then you have a bunch of dead students on your hands. Truth be told, they probably did Lupin a favour by hounding him out, just so he wouldn’t do something to get himself locked up.”
“He did get out once, and nobody was hurt,” Cal pointed out.
“Yeah, but nobody knows what happened that night. One of Dumbledore’s Gryffindor-loving great cover-ups,” Gabriel replied wearily. He shrugged when Cal turned on him, wearing an expression of ‘Et tu, Brute?’. “I don’t care much, truth be told. The man could teach, was afflicted by something beyond his control, and those responsible for him failed. They should be punished, not the Professor.”
“Trust Doyle to turn this into another Dumbledore criticism,” Tanith groaned to Tobias, as Cal looked less thrilled with Gabriel’s support than he might have.
“You’re saying to keep a werewolf away from the school because he might be dangerous, right, Toby?” Cal challenged Tobias, and hardly waited for a nod from his friend before continuing. “Then where could a werewolf go? Surely, if he’s allowed out in wizarding society, he might be a danger there?”
“Cal, you’re ranting,” Tanith mumbled, but went ignored.
“A school’s quite different. In the wide world, the Ministry keep an eye out – but Hogwarts is a condensed source of food to any werewolf, food that cannot protect itself,” Tobias said calmly. “I know it’s not a werewolf’s fault, but what’s more important? Their comfort, or innocent lives?”
“I hate to interrupt the fun that comes from our many, many… many debates about morality and other such irksome aspects of humanity,” Gabriel said slowly, breaking into their conversation with a haughty tone that contrasted with the fact that, seconds earlier, he’d been contributing to the debate. “But if you’ll look ahead, Tanith, I think we’re here.”
And, indeed, there was an archway pinpointing the end of the tunnel that they, despite their wand-illumination and because of their arguments, had not noticed until Gabriel had pointed it out. Just a simple doorway, hidden from the other side by thick bushes, but it was well and truly a way out.
As Tobias ducked under some leaves and gingerly touched a scratch on his cheek from a whipping branch that Tanith had carelessly pushed aside, he glanced at the others. They were all emerging from the tunnel by now, finding themselves – once they clambered from the undergrowth that hid the passageway’s entrance – by some trees at the bottom of a long slope. There was a large pile of rock that hid the archway of the hidden tunnel, but other than that, no signs of civilisation.
“Where are we?” Tobias asked at last, reluctantly. He tugged his robes about him. Cal had insisted that they not wear Hogwarts robes so as to not be grabbed immediately, but Tanith had pointed out how foolish it was to wear Muggle clothing when trying to be inconspicuous. In Hogsmeade, they could easily pass as young wizards there for the festival, and if nobody looked too closely, the four of them looked old enough to not be instantly pinpointed as Hogwarts students. Tobias and Cal were of age, and Gabriel’s birthday within the next month. They would doubtless get by.
If they could find the village, that was.
“I think we just need to get to the top of the hill. Van Roden said we had to walk a little way,” Cal said, grimacing a little before he grabbed Tobias by the sleeve and tugged him along up the slope hurriedly. Tanith and Gabriel exchanged glances before falling into pace beside them slowly.
Tobias had held nothing but the greatest respect for Jacob Van Roden, former Slytherin prefect who had left the year before, but not before becoming something of a mentor to him over his time at Hogwarts. However, he wasn’t so sure that Van Roden had been so used to sneaking out of the school that he could be considered a veritable expert on the hidden passageways.
Then again, nobody would have thought that Tobias Grey, prefect and general rule-obsessive, would think of sneaking out of the school. It was merely the tedium of Hogwarts over the Christmas holidays that came from Umbridge’s presence, and the general insubordination the High Inquisitor evoked, that had prompted their night-time excursion. Looks could be deceiving.
Indeed, as the four of them emerged rapidly over the crest of the hill, the shape of Hogsmeade village could be seen below them. It was a slope, really, not much of a hill, and when Tobias glanced over to his left, he could see footpath there that, if they had walked around the hill civilly, they would have found. As it was, they merely sauntered down, hearing music and seeing the exotic lights of Hogsmeade even from this distance.
As the only truly fully wizarding settlement in Britain, Hogsmeade was often the site of many of the more elaborate magic occasions. The summer fete was a sight worth being seen by all, though none of them had ever attended save Gabriel, who had been only about four at the time and claimed to be able to remember nothing but an enchanted, dancing mannequin that had scared the living daylights out of him – the Boggart lessons in their fourth year had confirmed this panic.
But the New Year’s festivals was ten times more famous. It was not odd that individuals from around the country had come down here, where they were allowed to celebrate in a full, wizarding style and not be in the slightest bit worried about alerting the Muggles to their presence.
This made the festival a veritable orgy of sights and sounds, as the foursome discovered when they finally reached the village. It was only half nine, and though this was the time the festival was technically supposed to start, the fact that there was already street dancing and free-flowing amounts of various interesting liquors suggested that the celebrations had been going on for a while already.
There was never anything specifically organised about the festival, which was one of its beauties. People just turned up from all over the country with their stands, or their shows, or any other displays of note, and it all turned into a mad bout of celebrations. They had no doubt that the village green, which was currently empty, and the hill they had just come from, would be more than full by the end of the night.
Tobias looked on as a man juggled ten sparkling wands, which cast various illusions into the air when they were tossed back up. Mythological beasts sprang out of each wand-tip in a myriad of colours, and each illusion was more splendorous than the last. Tobias had no doubt that he could copy all of them individually, but the idea of casting ten illusions at once from wands which he couldn’t be as used to as his own, whilst juggling them all… well, it baffled him.
Over to the left of the main street stood a woman doing an impressive spot of transfiguration that shifted the cutlery laid down a long, long table into various animals, which performed small dances before turning back into a spoon, or a knife, or a fork. Just further down the street from her, on a large stand, a group of young people were performing some traditional wizardly music, with enchanted amplification that meant it reached the entire village without deafening those close up to it. And in the street before them, everybody danced.
The four students turned to each other, grinning broadly. The festival was most definitely on.
“I think we need to start at the Three Broomsticks,” Cal declared jubilantly, rubbing his hands together and stepping forwards towards the large crowd of wizards. “After all, we need to get a good chance to take in the sights. It’ll be murder getting a table, but I think we’re early enough.”
Nobody argued with him, considering that the Three Broomsticks was down at the other end of the street, and getting there meant passing all of the fabulous sights and sounds. Being all from wizarding families, and having been exposed to magic their whole lives – the only one of them who knew anything else to any great extent was Cal, with Will Rayner’s Muggle-friendly upbringing – but the festival was as grand and exotic to them as any Muggle fair would have been to any Muggle child.
Tables were being cast up as quickly as people arrived outside the Three Broomsticks, and it was clear that the inside of the pub was quite full. It was rather cold in Hogsmeade at this time of year, but some heating charm had to have been cast, otherwise the village would have been overrun without the streets to spill out into.
The four of them managed to grab a new, small table as it popped into existence, courtesy of one of the serving girls, who was waving a wand around liberally to cater for new customers. Gabriel didn’t sit down, merely took money from them quickly before heading into the pub with a promise of Butterbeer. Knowing it would be impossible to convince them to not leave Hogwarts, Tobias had settled with a promise not to drink. Now he was here, in the middle of this evocative and intoxicating evening, he was rather regretting the agreement. But no – they needed to keep their heads about them if they were to avoid getting caught. And the fact remained that they could have plenty of fun without alcohol.
“So, you feeling more relaxed about all of this now, Grey?” Tanith asked him chirpily, sitting down on one of the chairs and shrugging off the heavier overcoat of her robes in the warm bubble of the heating charm engulfing the village. “Now we’re away from all of the risks.”
“Well, actually, I don’t think we’re away from the risks. It only takes one teacher down here to enjoy the fun and we could be in a lot of trouble. Or the way back could be rather treacherous. I’m not going to assume that we’re home free yet,” Tobias said, shaking his head and resisting the urge to smirk as the other two rolled their eyes at him.
“Right little ray of sunshine, isn’t he, Tanith?” Cal asked her, sighing dramatically.
Tobias chuckled, punching his friend on the upper arm playfully. “Nah, I’m just messing with you. Yeah, it’s true that we’re not necessarily alright, but I’m not going to let that bother me. We’re here, and we’re going to have a great evening.”
“If it weren’t for Umbridge and Hogwarts being all but dead, I wouldn’t even think about coming down here; you know that,” Tanith said, and the authority-respecting side of her that Tobias knew existed was clearly kicking in. “But I think I might have to kill myself if I have to stay in that joyless place any more.”
“It’s not nice, what’s happening, is it,” Cal mumbled. “Less Dumbledore influence isn’t a good thing, whatever Gabriel might say. There’s a leash being put on everyone. No wonder hardly anybody’s stayed here for the Christmas holidays.”
“Seems to be the sixth year curse to hang around. There’s at least one pour soul from every house in our year without the chance of going home.” Tobias glanced at Tanith. “Then again, some of us did decide that Hogwarts would be better than home. If I had to spend another Christmas with my grandfather grooming me, I’d end up going absolutely crazy at the old codger.” He scowled. ”I don’t know why Mum had to go to another damned reunion anyway. They’ve been mocking her ever since she married my Dad. And that’s a lot of mocking.”
“Yes, and I’ve already made my opinion on the enjoyment levels of Christmas with my parents quite clear,” Tanith said coolly.
“You used to get on well with your parents. What happened?” Cal asked, shifting in his seat.
Tanith shrugged. “Things with Dad were fine. I was his little girl, after all.” Her lip curled, and Tobias wasn’t sure if it was with disgust or a wry nostalgia. “After all, I took after him heavily. My sister got the Ravenclaw traits of the family. But in recent years…” She sighed, shaking her head. “I don’t quite know what it was. A bit of it was that I began to challenge all of his views. Which I can blame you two for.”
Her voice was dry, but Tobias knew there were more thanks and more affection in the words than any bitterness. “You mean, anti-Muggle-born views, and other such older family tripe?” he asked cheerfully.
“Yeah. He wasn’t happy about his darling daughter becoming quite so… un-Cole. I think it’s only Altair who keeps him in check; I don’t know if my mother does anything at all. I just… well, why do you think I’ve found somewhere else to be many summers?” Tanith asked, looking up at them. In that moment, Tobias found her to seem much more vulnerable than ever before in their entire acquaintance. He wanted to reach out to her, pat a shoulder or take her hand, but past transgressions forbade him.
“Do you guys want to come back to my house over the summer?” Cal interrupted. “If you’re so desperate to not go home, Tanith. Will won’t mind, I’m sure. We all stayed out of his way last year. We won’t be bothering him.” He smiled wryly. “We can get down the pub for the first time, too.”
“Sounds good.” Tobias smiled thinly. “I think my Mum’s planning to leave the country, too. She’s had less and less to do here in Britain. Gringotts are probably going to get her a decent transfer to somewhere on the continent. She hasn’t said anything specific, but I’ve caught bits and pieces in her letters. So it might be nice to spend the summer somewhere other than at home, alone.”
“What’s this? Another fun summer of hiking?” Gabriel interrupted, coming to sit down at the fourth seat around the table. He passed the Butterbeers he’d grabbed around, taking a large gulp of his quickly. “It’s madly packed in there. Absolutely nutty. I’ve never seen it so busy before.”
“That’s because this is the festival, Gabe. It tends to get quite active.” Cal shifted to face him. “Yeah; I was just telling Cal and Tanith about how Will wouldn’t probably mind if you all came back to my place over the summer for a fortnight or so. You up for it? Just like old times.”
“I thought old times annoyed you?” Tanith asked wryly, eyes narrowing.
Cal ignored her as Gabriel spoke, nodding. “Sounds good,” he said, sipping his drink again. “Will should be back from his mad travelling by then?”
Cal shrugged. “I don’t know. If not, free house. If so… well, open invitation. I don’t even know where he is, but I keep getting letters from random birds just saying he’s alright. I think he doesn’t want me to panic, but I have far too much faith in him to not get into any trouble that it’s not necessary.” He smiled smugly, and took up his Butterbeer.
Tobias always felt a pang of jealousy at the simple, loving relationship between Cal and his foster-father. Will Rayner had been a better guardian to Cal than it seemed either Tanith or Gabriel’s real fathers – though the latter’s family life was an odd mystery few of them touched upon – had ever been, and the fact that Tobias had never known his own father just made it faintly painful. Will Rayner may have been an Unspeakable, and may have been forced to travel widely on a regular basis – more and more now that Cal was of an age to take care of himself – but he never forgot his foster-son.
“We should have fun. And I’m not going hiking again, Gabe,” Tobias said to Gabriel instead, tearing his eyes away from Cal slowly.
“Sure you are. It’s fun. It gets you fit, and active, and full of fresh air. Books will kill you some day, Toby,” Gabriel said to him, chuckling a little.
“The day Gabriel Doyle becomes a health freak, Hell freezes over,” Tanith declared, eyeing Gabriel dubiously as she clutched her own Butterbeer.
Cal looked over their shoulders into the crowd, and tugged on Tanith’s sleeve vaguely. “Actually, Tan, I think one of the other criteria for Hell freezing over has just been filled!” he declared, with a touch of glee on his face. They all twisted in their chairs to see a familiar group heading their way, though they only noticed them when Cal called out with a loud chuckle.
“What’s this? Jennifer Riley is breaking the rules? Surely that’s a rather un-Gryffindor thing to do!” he crowed victoriously at the Hogwarts students that had clearly had the same idea as them on how to spend a New Year others would have them pass at school.
“I could say the same about Tobias Grey!” Nick Wilson called out in retaliation as the five students from three other houses drew to a halt in front of the four Slytherins.
There was a long, taut silence as the entirety of the sixth year still at Hogwarts stared at each other. The situation could very easily have gone quite nastily, considering the long and uneasy history between the individuals, and the current enmity between Slytherin and the other houses.
But the fact that they were Tanith Cole, Caldwyn Brynmor, Tobias Grey and Gabriel Doyle helped considerably, for they were not Adrian Pucey, with his constant mocking, or Miles Bletchley, with his constant bullying, or Edmund Montague, with his constant punching. They were… the lesser Slytherins. And thus the lesser evil.
Tanith, amazingly, made the first move as she stood up. “Alright. We’re going to need a bigger table,” she declared, pulling her wand out of her sleeve and conjuring up a long, broad dining table in a feat of magic that Flitwick would have been more than slightly proud of.
Another silence greeted this, until Nick Wilson chuckled and moved over to pull up a chair. “Sure thing, Cole. Nice little bit of conjuring there; I remember you having trouble in Charms with that sort of heavy-duty work a few weeks ago.”
“Smart-arse here made sure I practiced,” Tanith said, nodding in Tobias’ direction. He made a vague noise of protest, but nothing more.
“It’s pretty packed in there,” Gabriel told George Summerby, Hufflepuff Seeker, as he eyed the inside of the Three Broomsticks evaluatingly. “You might want to think twice before you go and fetch drinks.”
Summerby paused, one hand resting on a chair. “I’ll go,” he said to the other four. “Butterbeers all around?”
Wilson and Riley nodded, as did Annie MacKenzie – another Gryffindor – and Aurora Jameson of Ravenclaw. Summerby hurried off into the crowd, and MacKenzie leaned across the table at the four Slytherins. “So, how long did you guys have this planned?” she asked, as if she could pre-empt their claim to a presence at the Hogsmeade Festival.
The four Slytherins exchanged glances, then Cal grunted. “I’m not sure. Maybe since Christmas? As that was such a loveless affair, we thought we’d make a break for it, see if we could inject some fun into our lives.”
“Well, you were talking about the festival last month, Cal,” Tanith corrected, sipping her Butterbeer. “You said we should go some day.”
“Yeah, but I think ‘some day’ then meant in about two years, when we’re out of Hogwarts, or if we go home for the holidays and then all meet up here independently, rather than being under Dumbledore’s supervision,” Gabriel pointed out.
Tobias sighed, looking at Annie MacKenzie. “In short, it was a last minute thing. I did try to discourage them, but it seemed it would not be so. They seem to be intent on getting the lot of us expelled before the school year’s out.”
“Not that it would be too much of a loss, with Umbridge all but running the place,” Annie pointed out, and Tobias found himself nodded slightly.
“True. But I do have a job in mind that rather demands NEWTs,” he answered slowly.
Annie looked vaguely interested. “Oh yes? What’s that?”
The other three Slytherins groaned theatrically, and Cal gave his friend a little shove, glancing at Annie. “Oh, don’t encourage him, Mac,” he declared dramatically. “He’ll only talk your ears off for the rest of the night.” He grinned as Annie’s lips twitched. “After all, how interesting can someone be if they want to become an Ambassador of Magic, working in some Embassy in some God-forsaken distant country somewhere on behalf of our Ministry?”
Annie gave Tobias an appraising look. “I think that sounds potentially interesting,” she said slowly, smiling a little.
“So do I,” he said, grinning at the support.
Tanith leaned forwards, butting in slightly to the conversation. “Surely it’s not the night to talk about career prospects?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “After all, we’re here to forget school and all the problems it brings, not revel in the future that it may or may not give us.”
“Says Miss ‘I-want-to-be-an-Auror’, who needs a bagful of NEWTs to even get looked at in her chosen career,” Tobias rebuked, shifting to face her.
“You want to be an Auror?” George Summerby asked as he returned, laden with Butterbeer, and took the empty seat next to Tanith. “That sounds fascinating. Only the best of the best actually make it, don’t they?”
Tobias turned to look at Summerby a little challengingly. “Then you’re just encouraging Tanith. She is the best,” he said simply.
“Thank you, Grey,” Tanith said, sipping her Butterbeer. “You might be boring, but you can sometimes compliment me quite suitably. You do serve a purpose.”
“I thought my purpose was nothing more than to comply with your every whim and desire?” Tobias said, shifting to face her and unable to keep the slight edge out of his voice that threatened.
Wilson coughed, having clearly noticed the sparks about to fly. “You know, it’s busy out in the street. Mad dancing, but not quite mad enough. You think we should show them how it’s done at Hogwarts?”
“What, stepping on toes and with bad dress robes, like last year?” Annie asked, laughing wryly. “I’m not sure that’s a good demonstration, Nick.”
“And it’s not best to wear a sign saying ‘Hogwarts Truants Here’,” Tobias pointed out, and Annie laughed again.
“We’ll be fine,” Wilson said, winking at them before he practically dragged a protesting Riley from her seat and out into the street of mad dancers.
There was a long pause as Tobias’ first thought was to turn to Tanith to ask her to join him. But no – he remembered the last time they had danced only too well, and leaned across the table slightly to face Annie. “Feel like joining them? I’m not a bad dancer, and I absolutely avoid stepping on toes,” he said, smirking a little.
He ignored Tanith’s mutter of “well, you really know how to get the girls, Grey,” as Annie grinned at him and hopped to her feet.
“Sounds good. Nick can’t dance worth a damn, so someone does actually have to show them how to do it right,” the Gryffindor said cheerily, and Tobias stepped up, grabbing her lightly by the wrist and stepping backwards to join the crowd.
Just over her shoulder, he was aware of George Summerby turning to Tanith slightly, but before he could say a word Cal had stood and grabbed her out into the street as well. Tobias didn’t like the sense of relief that hit him at that, and nor did he like the fact that Cal gave him a discreet, but reassuring wink as they stepped past.
He wasn’t supposed to be feeling like this, damn it.
So, instead, Tobias focused on Annie MacKenzie as the next song started up, and decided that with a pretty girl agreeing to dance with him, he didn’t need to think about any unrequited feelings he might or might not have had for Tanith. “So, can you dance, or should I take it easy?”
“Think that just because I’m Muggle-Born I can’t dance up a storm? I once took ballet lessons, I’ll have you know,” Annie told him, smirking again.
Tobias grinned. “Ballet? That’s the weak Muggle thing where they flit around to prissy music wearing tight-fitting clothing? Sounds like fun, but it’s not quite my kind of dancing,” he told her, raising an eyebrow.
“Alright.” Annie’s smirk remained intact. “You dance however you wish, and I’ll show you just how prissy it might make me.”
So he did. His mother had insisted on dancing lessons from a young age, and although he wasn’t exactly the individual with the most natural sense for music, when it came to a social dance he certainly wasn’t shabby. He hit the beat, he hit the floor, and he knew how to move to the rhythm in an admittedly formal way which could still be jazzed up to compensate for types of music.
Fortunately, traditional wizarding music, which tended towards fast-paced, Celtic-sounding melodies, was exactly his strong point, and, as Annie had promised, she too could ‘dance up a storm’.
“So, how’d you guys get down here?” Annie asked as they whirled quickly, she not missing a single beat despite the conversation just started. “It’s pretty hard to find a few hidden passageways that lead down this far.”
“We got one by the Slytherin common room. Just past the portrait of the Shiny Man?” Tobias explained eloquently – though the Shiny Man was, indeed, how the too-generously-painted individual in the picture was called. “I can’t tell you all the secrets of course, or you’d use it yourself, and we need a certain amount of mystery.”
“Ah, yes. Slytherin ambiguity. You think it lends you a specific amount more appeal than other houses, just because nobody seems to know what happens behind the doors to your common room,” Annie said dryly.
“Well, people don’t often know what happens in our common room other than Slytherins. The only reason I know about the time on Christmas Day when McLaggen and Wilson got you with dungbombs was the smell and subsequent explanation from Cal,” Tobias pointed out smoothly. Then he wondered as to how wise it might be to remind a girl he was dancing with that he remembered a time she’d stunk of crap.
“Yes, but you’re not exactly sociable with the rest of the school, on the whole,” Annie said, ignoring his comment.
“We’re being sociable tonight?” Tobias grinned, stepping a little bit closer in accordance with the music – though not exactly as the dance moves described. Annie had a lack of reaction that spoke just as much, though she did grin a little and continue to dance quite happily.
“I think you are. I meant in general,” Annie said, leaning into the slight twirl of the dance move, his arm ending up a little more around her back than it had been before. That was what the dance demanded, however. “You know – Slytherin house are the outsiders.”
“Not my fault. The fault of others in my house, certainly, but not my fault,” Tobias said darkly, then fell silent.
Annie looked at him sympathetically. “It can’t be easy to have so many idiots in your house,” she said softly. “I mean, I know how the rest of the school paints you all. Everyone seems to do it, and Nick’s only being polite to you because Jennifer told him to play nice – she suspected you’d be down here. But I know you’re not like the rest.”
“Well, the four of us are generally alright, as there are only five others in our year, and though Montague’s a right brute, we generally get by, even if Bletchley can be a complete and utter wanker from time to time…” Tobias’ voice trailed off as Annie shook her head.
“I meant the specific you, this time,” she said quietly, nodding at him. “Doyle can be a bastard. I know he’s your friend, and I’m sorry, but he can.”
Tobias grimaced. “I know. He’s got better, but… I know.”
“And Cal’s alright – friends with everyone, but he’s still sometimes… just as boisterous as the rest of your house. And I don’t just mean outgoing boisterous, I mean in that faintly abrasive way? He’s a nice guy, don’t get me wrong,” Annie shook her head slightly as the song came to a halt finally, and stepped back.
“I know. Cal’s a good friend. He’s… he’s like a brother to me. But that doesn’t blind me to his faults.” Tobias shifted as a much slower, softer song began to play. “I know I have my own faults, though; my ego’s not that big.”
“A healthy ego can sometimes be a good thing,” Annie told him, shrugging.
Maybe you should exercise your ego, Tobias thought, looking at her and listening to the music. “Shall we keep on dancing?” he asked, quite aware of the nature of this slower song they were playing in the streets of Hogsmeade.
Annie considered this slightly, then smirked a little. “Sounds good,” she said, stepping close again. Tobias was briefly aware of the others of their table heading back and leaving the dancing. He didn’t think about that right then, though.
He didn’t know whether to grin or panic when Annie slowly rested her hands on his shoulder, and he gripped her by the waist gently. He settled on a faintly nervous smile. “What about Tanith?” he asked, then quickly stumbled over the words as he realised how it could sound. He took a few deep breaths before continuing. “I mean, what makes her not-so-different from the rest?”
Annie grinned at him, and he felt his nerves dissipating a little. “You tell me,” she said softly. “You say you can see their flaws.”
Tobias was keenly aware that this might be a test. He didn’t know how much Annie MacKenzie knew to be testing him on, nor was he entirely sure how to pass it. He decided to do something very foolish and settle on the truth.
Amazingly, it worked.
“She’s better than she was, like Gabriel, but she can often be dismissive of non-pureblood wizards. I’ve even suffered from that myself, though I don’t think she realises she’s doing it. And she has a very much ‘us versus them’ mentality which doesn’t help the current house problems,” Tobias said quietly, his brow furrowed as he considered her flaws. They didn’t bother him – they were a part of who Tanith was – but he could see them. This was new.
Annie nodded slightly. “You went to the Yule Ball with her,” she said slowly, as they twirled a little. “Last year.” It wasn’t a question.
“It didn’t end particularly well,” Tobias said. “I mean, I thought she might have been more than a friend, but she made it quite clear that wasn’t happening. One good thing about Tanith being Tanith is that she doesn’t tend to leave uncertainties in her wake.” He couldn’t help but grimace at this.
Annie looked sympathetically at him, but also, just below the surface, was an evaluating air he could just make out. “It would have to be rather hard, to have those sorts of feelings for your best friend when she wasn’t interested,” she said slowly.
Tobias met the gaze levelly, now becoming increasingly aware of what was being asked. He didn’t know whether or not to run. The irritation he’d felt at Summerby being about to ask Tanith to dance earlier was now promptly forgotten.
And why shouldn’t he forget it?
“I’ve dealt with it. Teenage infatuation,” he said calmly, grinning. “Being a man in the wizarding world now, I think I’m entitled to be able to dismiss my vague attractions of the past and… move on.”
“To more serious attractions?” Annie asked, with a smirk that softened his grin.
“Perhaps,” he said, and he didn’t know why he was saying it, or why he was saying it to her, but he did know why she was smiling at him like that, and then he was smiling too, and the moment clicked, just like a moment can when it’s the right time and the right place and the right person and the frame of mind. And then he kissed her, and it wasn’t a fumbled occasion like his attempted kiss of Tanith last year had been, because she clearly wanted it too, and kissed him back. And even though Annie was somebody that he’d known for six years, and he’d only ever paid the slightest amount of attention to her in Potions or Defence, and didn’t exactly know her much better after an evening of flirting and dancing, that didn’t matter, because they both knew that it was just a kiss. And although a kiss could lead possibly to more kisses, and an unknown territory beyond that, right then it was just a kiss, neither of them caring that they were under the stars and in a crowded street in Hogsmeade – for on a dramatic New Year’s Eve, what was one more couple in each other’s arms?
“Just as well Tobias has been paying more attention to his bloody Gryffindor than me,” Tanith mumbled bitterly as she poured the last of a bottle of Firewhiskey into her glass and drank it quickly. She felt fuzzy, but certainly not drunk enough for New Year’s celebrations, as Cal and Gabriel had happily helped her with the bottle. The moment Tobias had begun snogging MacKenzie under the stars without the slightest regard for the rest of the world, she’d known she needed a heavy drink, and Cal had been happy to provide.
As she said, Tobias was too distracted to remember his earlier assertion that they would not be drinking alcohol. After all, he was the one panicking about them making it back to Slytherin common room without being caught, and thus he could direct his three tipsy friends if he was so worried about it all. The logic didn’t make sense, but Tanith wasn’t in a mood for logic.
It was one in the morning, and she was tipsy, and she was tired, and she was sick of the giggly mood everyone had got in. Gabriel and Cal had gone into one of their buddy-buddy modes like they sometimes did when tipsy, much more physical in their interactions, and Tanith didn’t want to interrupt in case one of Cal’s mighty ‘friendly’ punches knocked her off her chair. Summerby had given her up as a lost cause, clearly, and was chatting in a friendly but calm manner to Aurora Jameson. If she didn’t think the both of them were pillocks, she would have probably thrown in her lot with the pair for normal discussion.
Then there were the two couples, Riley and Wilson, and Tobias and MacKenzie. Nauseating, the lot of them, and she didn’t particularly want to glance over at where Tobias and MacKenzie flirted as if they hadn’t spent half of the night lip-locked, and where Riley sat casually on Wilson’s lap as if nobody else was there. Not that Tanith cared too much if the Gryffindors declared their affection, and on a normal day she would concede that they were being casual with each other yet restrained. She was just almightily pissed off.
She stood, yanking Cal to her feet as she did so. “You know, I think we should head back,” she declared at last, a little haughtily. “After all, it will be pretty suspicious if we stagger back into the Great Hall at six in the morning having not had any sleep after being out all night.”
There was some mumbling at this comment, but eventually Gabriel stood up as well, catching on. Cal patted her on the back slightly, nodding. “Yeah. And Snape will probably want us up before noon, so we can’t really afford to turn in too late…”
Tobias was staring at them in astonishment. “This is from the people who’ve been at the Firewhiskey and wanted to go absolutely mad in New Year’s celebrations tonight! Now you’re becoming a load of boring sods!”
“Yes, well, Firewhiskey does things to you, Grey,” Tanith said to him, a bit more venomously than she’d intended – but he didn’t seem to notice, and smiled wryly.
“Alright. Yes, it is getting a bit late, and I’d rather not have a mad Snape after me.” He turned to MacKenzie, who was still grinning in that knowing way which made Tanith want to punch her. He supposed Tobias would have never gone for some blank blonde bimbo, but there was something too aware about MacKenzie which made Tanith think she was doing a lot of this just to annoy others. Herself in particular.
“I don’t know how you Gryffindors… and Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw… are getting back, but you can fend for yourselves,” Tanith told them loudly, then leant heavily on Cal as the two of them and Gabriel began to head down the main road. She didn’t want to see the inevitable goodbye kiss of Tobias and MacKenzie.
When he caught up with them, finally, they were just stepping through the outskirts of the village, heading off to the hill behind which their passageway back to school could be found. They found themselves automatically slipping into their usual routine when they split somewhat, and although Tanith right then wanted Cal’s comforting company more than anything else, she found herself walking unsteadily next to Tobias as Cal and Gabriel walked on ahead.
“Well. Did you have fun?” she asked, managing to induce a certain amount of levity into her voice as they walked, which was impressive considering her primary focus was on not tripping over her own two feet.
“It was a good evening. Remind me not to question you when you tell me to unwind,” Tobias said, with a slight smile that she hadn’t seen him wear in a while. It was soft, happy, and untroubled – three things she wouldn’t usually associate with her friend.
“I’m always right,” Tanith mumbled, wishing she were wrong. Then she looked at him slowly. “So. MacKenzie, huh? A Gryffindor for you?”
Tobias’ smile broadened. “It’s not how it seems. We had a chat, and decided that… tonight was nice. But it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to be spending Valentine’s Hogsmeade trip together, or anything. We had a good night, and we enjoyed each others’ company, but it doesn’t have to be more than that.”
“Wow. Tobias going into as much of a one night stand as he’ll ever go. This is one for the papers,” Tanith said, managing to find a bit more levity. “You know I’d go nuts if you ever paired up with a Gryffindor, though.”
Tobias looked at her calmly. “Well, it’s not as if there are many options within Slytherin,” he said quietly, and a heavy silence fell upon the two of them. “Look, there are… other reasons why I’m feeling happy. Mostly, I’ve had a great weight lifted off my mind.”
“What?” Tanith asked obliviously, stumbling a little on a rock. He reached out to balance her, and for the first time a while, there was little embarrassment in his move.
“You,” Tobias told her softly, and Tanith blinked at him, now wishing she didn’t feel fuzzy from the alcohol. “Despite what I said a year ago, I hadn’t quite… come to terms with the fact that you didn’t exactly feel about me the way I felt about you. It still bugged me. Though I sat on it and tried to ignore it and didn’t act on it.”
“I know,” Tanith mumbled. “I’m not blind.”
Tobias grimaced. “I think, if nothing else, tonight cured me of that. Pointed out to me that it was just a teenaged infatuation. You’re my friend, Tanith, and that means a thousand times more to me than you being my girlfriend would.”
Tanith paused as they stepped down to the bottom of the hill, where Gabriel and Cal were winding their way through the undergrowth into the hidden passageway that would take them all the way back up to Hogwarts.
“You’re a good friend, Tobias,” she told him, and stepped forward slowly to kiss him lightly on the cheek. She hadn’t done that in a while, for varying reasons, but he had just expressed quite suitably that it was acceptable. She felt her own irritation slide off her slightly at the friendly atmosphere between the two of them.
Tanith paused, kicking a pebble off into the trees. “But if you ever go out with a bloody Gryffindor, I’ll have to kill you!”
Tobias laughed, throwing his arm around her shoulder and shepherding her towards the passageway after Gabriel and Cal. “That’s the Tanith I know and love, right there. Don’t ever change. I need you to keep me grounded.”
And so they set off, back to Hogwarts, after a night of madness. This was the last they would speak of such matters in a while, for their friendship seemed set to fall into the pattern it had been in before the Yule Ball, something they had missed in over a year – a year of faint awkwardness and uncertainty.
The fact that they were lying to themselves, and each other, was not a fact that needed to be acknowledged. After all, sometimes the truth can be nothing more than a tool of destruction – and they were more attached to being good friends than to acting on an attraction that would ruin that friendship.
It was all about priorities.
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