Chapter 16 : The Female of the Species
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“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.
“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.
“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.
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