Chapter 7 : The More Things Change
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“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.
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